Officials plan to convert smuggling outpost at border into free-trade zone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 1994, 12:00am

VIETNAM is eyeing a tiny jungle smuggling outpost as a possible site for the country's first free-trade zone, in an ambitious bid to bring jobs to one of its most desperate regions.

Formal talks between Vietnam and Laos over the future of the border town of Lao Bao in Quang Tri province are expected soon.

The town, already thriving on largely underground trade from Thailand, is surrounded by Vietnamese military and customs police. It lies 20 km from the famous battleground of Khe Sanh, where hundreds of Quang Tri's starving villagers still risk their lives digging for bombs to sell for scrap-metal.

The 400,000 people in the central province frequently face famine, as stunted crops fail due to unsuitable war-scarred land and a harsh climate.

'The people here have had so little for so long, maybe the free-trade plan can at last give them some hope,' a provincial official said.

'At the moment we are still formulating plans, but we hope that Lao Bao will in future become an international hub of Southeast Asia - a place where Thailand, Laos and Vietnam can come together to meet and trade.' Work is already under way to improve some 80 km of jungle road to international standards, and it is believed unofficial talks have been held in Hanoi on the mutual benefits of a trade zone for Laos and Vietnam.

Officials hope waiving restrictive import and export tariffs - which can top 50 per cent - would draw Thai businessmen and a wide variety of goods to Lao Bao, the closest point in Vietnam to Thailand.

Vietnam would gain greater access to key Laotian exports such as clothes and timber, while land-locked Laos would find it easier to get goods out through Vietnam ports.

Vietnam is also thinking of the tourist potential - the plan offers the chance to lure foreign travellers from Thailand to the province's hill tribes and battle sites in the former de-militarised zone between the former North and South Vietnam.

Thai-sourced toilets, medicinal goods, cigarettes and stereos can be found in Lao Bao, often having arrived via high-jungle bluffs on the backs of hill tribesmen. The tribesmen often head back with loads of Vietnamese zinc, the export of which is restricted.

Some villagers already have licences enabling them to travel easily across the strictly-policed border daily.

Hundreds of traders pack the collection of shacks that is the market, dealing freely in wads of baht, kip, dong and dollars.

The wealth is drawing growing numbers villagers from the bleak, misty plateau of Khe Sanh, where those who survive receive less than HK$1 (1,500 dong) for each kilogram of scrap collected for Japanese merchants.

Zinc and brass prised from detonators fetches more but carries greater risk.

'The work is getting more and more dangerous now,' said farmer Le Van Thai. 'The unexploded bombs left now are the ones people were too scared to touch years before.

American forces dropped 100,000 tonnes of bombs around Khe Sanh during the siege of 1968. Many of those thought to remain unexploded are parachute flares, which contain white phosphorous that burns when exposed to air. Often, a hot day is enough to set them off.

'Those that return are the poorest of the poor, the starving and the unemployed,' said Mr Thai, who risks abandoned minefields each day to cut weeds for compost near an old runway.

He said his son-in-law died two years ago breaking up a bomb when famine forced hundreds of people to dig.