FRIENDSHIP GATE, Vietnam-China Border — Vietnam has a few good roads: Highway One, for instance, in stretches, but not the section here at the border. The last two miles of it are an asphalt footpath, through a mine field, to Friendship Gate.
The area is scarred by war and bristling with military force, a diorama of the fitful relations between the two one-time allies.
During the Vietnam War, Chinese and Soviet arms and other supplies moved down Highway One and a parallel railway into North Vietnam. U.S. pilots bombed both, right up to the frontier, but never shut them down.
In February, 1979, four years after the war ended, the Chinese did. Attempting to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia, which had been ruled by China's Khmer Rouge allies, Chinese troops drove across the border on a broad front.
After a month of hard fighting, the Chinese withdrew, but no cargo has moved since on the northern part of the railway. Reeds have grown up through the skeletons of two abandoned freight cars. And north of the shelled-out village of Dong Dang, vines and undergrowth have crept over the highway, leaving only the footpath up to Friendship Pass.
There, a whitewashed line marks the frontier and the Kilometer Zero point on the highway, which extends south to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and beyond to its terminus in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
In August, a group of foreign journalists were escorted north along the highway to observe a prisoner exchange between the Vietnamese and Chinese.
Since 1979, the Sino-Vietnamese conflict has stuttered militarily but not politically. The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia remains the sticking point preventing better relations.
Troops Along Frontier
Both sides have an estimated half a million men stationed along the frontier, and there is an occasional artillery exchange, particularly on the front northwest of Friendship Gate. In January, in the sharpest outbreak since the Chinese invasion, three days of fighting reportedly resulted in hundreds of casualties.
Currently, according to Gen. Tran Cong Man, editor of the Vietnamese army newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan, "the situation is not very strained, no big battles."
Most of the trouble, he told the reporters at his offices in Hanoi, takes place on the border of the Vietnamese province of Ha Tuyen.
"Both armies are ready for a fight, alert," he said.
The last major shelling in the Friendship Gate area took place more than three years ago, from early April to mid-May, 1984, said a Vietnamese officer who was present for the prisoner exchange.
"The Chinese fired more than 1,000 mortar and artillery rounds," he said. He insisted that the Vietnamese did not return the fire.
Friendship Gate, as the site of the only contact between the two forces along the winding border, has a special significance that may prevent more fighting. Including the recent exchange, the Vietnamese say, they have returned 450 Chinese "intruders" here since 1979. In return, 168 Vietnamese have been handed over by the Chinese. There have been 21 separate prisoner exchanges.
Invariably, each side says that its men were captured in their own territory and were merely innocent farmers or fishermen, not military.
Red Cross Escort
All the exchanges are carried out under Red Cross auspices. The contingent of journalists, soldiers and provincial officials that set out recently along the path from Dong Dang was preceded by a Red Cross flag and stretcher bearers in white coats and caps.
The path, which begins directly outside the ruined houses of the village, is marked by whitewashed lines and an occasional white skull and crossbones daubed on the asphalt, denoting the mine field.
"Stay in single file and stay on the path," the marchers were warned.
Here and there beside the three-mile route, morning glories bloomed alongside a few menacing, olive-drab anti-tank mines that had been dug out of the path to permit safe passage for that morning's exchange. One remained in the pathway itself, its pressure fuse removed. On a nearby hill, a Chinese radar dish stood motionless.
Several times the asphalt disappeared altogether and the path dwindled to a narrow dirt walkway. At its end, where the path widened to about eight feet, a media event awaited.
On the Vietnamese side of the border stood an honor guard of eight soldiers in pressed fatigues and billed caps. Across the white line was a far larger Chinese contingent, about 80, dressed in smarter, darker green uniforms. The soldiers lined the sides of what, on Chinese territory, is a two-lane road. The Chinese carried new AK-47 rifles, their wooden stocks polished, the metal glistening. The Vietnamese honor guards carried the same type of weapons, but their stocks were dull and showed much use.