Of the twenty or so passengers boarding the uncharacteristically-empty flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday morning, most were blissfully unaware of the anti-China riots that took the country by storm just two days earlier.
“Where did this happen?” an American-Chinese backpacker asked me as I was reading media reports of the violence on our shuttle bus to the Vietnam Airlines flight in Hong kong. “That’s where we’re going,” I told him.
Ho Chi Minh saw the largest anti-Chinese protests on Wednesday since the two Communist countries ended their bloody border skirmishes in 1989, that lasted a decade after China’s invasion of the South East Asian nation in 1979.
Dozens of buildings were torched on the outskirts of the southern Vietnam’s commercial hub as many Chinese-owned businesses – including those run by Hongkongers, Taiwanese and Singaporeans – were attacked by mobs and looted. The number of dead and wounded is still without official confirmation.
On the Vietnam-bound flight, an elderly American couple sitting next to me wondered aloud why so few people were travelling – until they sat down and read the newspaper.
A shriek and a debate ensued, ending with them dismissing concerns as the protests seemed only targeting Chinese.
The near three-hour flight took us to Ho Chi Minh airport. Walking past the rolls of advertisement billboards of Bank of China, China Bank of Communications and HSBC, I could not help but sense the irony of the deeply held anti-Chinese resentment in Vietnam given its economic ties with its larger neighbour to the north.
For now, the groundswell of emotions seemed greater than any considerations about money or the economy. One Vietnamese scholar sent me an emotional video ahead of trip denouncing Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea.
He said he wanted to show the Chinese people what their government was doing in Vietnam.
Once arrived, I was met with distressed victims caught up in the territorial dispute between the two nations.
Dozens of Chinese, mostly middle-aged men, were waiting at the departure hall to board flights to China. They were clearly stressed and were hesitatant to talk about the harrowing events of the past few days, when their lives became increasingly under threat.
One man, surnamed Guo, told me that he had never expected this kind of violence. He said he had hid in fear in his home until the Chinese embassy told him it was safe to drive to the airport.
Guo recalled how he shuddered when he looked at photos sent by friends by e-mail of the looting, beatings and dead bodies [sic] while he was hiding in fear in his home in Vietnam.
Looking at the rugged faces of the family, they seemed unlike the idea of the mighty, arrogant northern neighbours looming large in the Vietnamese people’s psyche.
On my way to Binh Duong, the epicentre of the riots on Wednesday, I drove past empty factories daubed with anti-Chinese slogans. Some were being cleaned up, but for most of the sites, the shattered glass and evidence of looting remained.
There were no signs of fresh unrest, but fear remained palpably in the air. Most Chinese workers have fled the country. By the time I meet Jacko Chou, the general director of Wei Lung Printing and Packaging, in his looted office, I had been sent dozens of photos of violence sent by angry Chinese people to my phone.
Chou said he wasn’t cleaning up his factory because of a protest widely expected to be planned for Sunday. He said he would keeps his gates open, in case looters return. “There is no point in keeping them out, they are too many of them,” he said, but soon he ended our conversation. “You better go, it’s getting dark.”