The “leech plot”
In the bustling city of Móng Cái, an economic node in the Sino–Vietnamese borderlands, observation of commercial exchanges and practices inside the different markets clearly attests to an efficient business language that has allowed Vietnamese and Chinese traders to communicate, negotiate, deal, and accumulate benefits since the re-opening of the frontier in 1991. Whereas official statistics and discourse continue to encourage investment, cooperation projects, and border trade improvements, other layers of this success lie beneath the surface. Several months of ethnographic fieldwork among small-scale Chinese cross-border traders established in Móng Cái, Vietnamese intermediaries, and various other actors in the local economic life, sheds light on the lack of trust in their relationships. This contribution analyzes three examples of traders’ discourses that reveal their doubt and uneasiness about their working conditions with their economic neighbours: the state official practices surrounding goods flows across the border; the “returning goods policy” and payment rules; and, the emblematic episode of “leech fever” in northern Vietnam. It argues that whether these voices arise out of empirical knowledge, to spread rumours, or from perceived behaviours, they nevertheless highlight various levels of deception that constitute the fragile social canvas of border trade activities conducted in a highly competitive economic space.