Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gazing into China

I think I like living on the edge. Or at least the fates seem content to keep me on the edge of the northern borders: first, I grew up a hop, skip and a jump from Wisconsin's northern border with the UP of Michigan. Then I did four years of undergrad just a stone's throw over the Minnesota and Wisconsin state lines in far northeastern Iowa. In California I was literally spitting distance south of a pretty major fault line. In Madagascar I lived just barely south of the border of the northern-most province – so far away from the central area of our province that most other Malagasy couldn't be convinced that that region even existed. And now, here I am in Vietnam, gazing up at China just above me. I think I like having a hypothetical escape route…

And this week my staff took me all the way up to the border to get a better look. We were up in a district observing several project activities and we scheduled in a lunch picnic at the Bản Giốc Waterfall on the actual border of China. According to one website I found, this is the largest waterfall in Asia (at 200 m wide and with a 70 m drop) – I'm not certain that this is really so – it seems there would be much larger falls elsewhere, So, we bought up a pile of fruit and snacks and drinks and hopped on our motorbikes and took off. Even better – they let me drive! So, not only were we going to look directly into the wilds of Guangxi Province of China, but I got to drive there – at a neckbreaking 50 km per hour!

The ride was fun and smooth – very little traffic and generally a very good road. The wind was almost warm (the US has been suffering a major cold snap, but northern Vietnam has gotten a mid-winter heat wave – 80 degrees by this weekend), the company was pleasant and our projects were going well. Almost too soon we pulled up in front of a large impressive building – the Vietnam border/waterfall guard.

We were welcomed by one young Mr. Linh who I was excited to meet because of the bit of histoire that was developing between him and one of my translators. Unfortunately she couldn't be with us for this trip, so while he was perfectly cordial in welcoming us, he couldn't help but show he was just a bit disappointed that I had betrayed him by bringing a different translator. I gave him my most abject apologies (she was off in Hanoi on business), and he waved us in to see the waterfall itself.

It is the dry season now, so the waterfall was at its least impressive stage.

Yet, I found the dry season to be of huge advantage for exploring. If it were fully wet we wouldn't be able to climb to the top and get as close to China as we did. This river, as unimpressive as it seemed to me, is the official borderline between here and China. I asked if we could just jump over to China. My staff members weren't too impressed with that idea and worked hard to put me off the idea. Honestly, I wasn't that interested in pursuing it (we had work to do later and I was in my nice clothes, plus I really am not too keen on staring in international incidents), but it was a neat idea.

The river level was quite low, and we could easily see the Chinese tourists looking at the waterfall from the other side.

I will be excited to go back there as the seasons change and see the change in the falls. I've seen pictures from almost every season, and it is truly a beautiful and relaxing place to spend a few hours. Plus, a nice reminder that there is a border nearby even if I never actually cross it.

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