Fifty-year-old Deng Wendong is persistent. Thirteen years after his first Vietnamese wife - whom he bought for about 300 yuan (1US$=8.3 yuan) from a fellow villager - left him and their daughter, he has got himself another bride from Vietnam.
The new bride is 27 and was brought here by her father's sister. Deng is a farmer; he earns a meagre living from fishing and occasional rock chipping in Ban'ai Village, about 20 kilometres from Dongxing, a border city with Vietnam in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
The picture of his ex-wife is still hangs on a wall of his home. "She was very capable (of doing housework and farming). But I was too poor, so she gave up after living with me for seven years."
Says Deng, "People would look down upon you if you don't have money or a wife. Having a Vietnamese bride is cheaper but will nevertheless earn you respect. At least you have a family." Tradition in the area demands that a bridegroom pay 8,000 to 10,000 yuan to the bride's parents as a betrothal gift.
Of the eight brothers of the Deng family, four have Vietnamese brides. His 32-year-old brother Deng Wenquan has a Vietnamese wife from Hanoi, for whom he paid about 400 yuan when he took a fancy to her at a villager's home. "She is nice and good at housework. My parents treat her well. Life is now a little better than the days without her," says Wenquan.
His wife Mai, four years younger than him, is a high-school graduate from a well-educated family. "If he were an old guy, I wouldn't have married him. I would try to report to the police," says the outspoken Vietnamese woman.
In 1999, Mai went back to Hanoi with her daughter to visit her parents, and she learned that they had reported the trafficker to the Vietnamese police and got him arrested. Her parents wanted her back in Vietnam. Says Mai, "I want to live with my parents. But I'm not sure I could marry a good man there. This man is good to me; he never beats me although sometimes we do quarrel." And she proudly shows photographs of her family in Vietnam and China.
Over 30 of the 1,500 Ban'ai villagers have bought Vietnamese women as wives, and this figure does not include men who cohabit with Vietnamese women. Marriage expense aside, there is much more to a Vietnamese bride compared to one who is Chinese.
Zhang Yuanfu, a 36-year-old butcher who first married a Vietnamese and now has a Chinese wife, tells the difference. "She was very considerate and hardworking. She would keep for me all the delicacies she cooked." He paid 500 yuan to the 'go-between'. However, she left him after four years, and took her son along. "We quarreled over my gambling, but she was better than the present one, who is very harsh, likes to pick fights and hits me when she catches me gambling."
Pei Xingfu - from Ban'ai village - was arrested by the police for drug trafficking; later he confessed to kidnapping a Vietnamese woman in broad daylight. According to him, about 30 to 40 per cent of his fellow villagers marry Vietnamese women. "Thanks to the opening up (of the country) and reform, villagers here are better off and therefore can afford to marry Chinese brides. I don't understand why they still want to wed Vietnamese women, even young men between 26 and 30," he says.
In the past few years, about seven men in the village have been sentenced for trafficking in Vietnamese women. Dongxing City shares 35.77 kilometres of the country's land boundary line and 42 kilometres of the coastal boundary with Vietnam. Since China normalized its diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1989, border trade has boomed each year and border residents from Vietnam visit China easily and freely, as long as they return by the end of the day.
Further, several years of war in Vietnam resulted in a diminishing male population. This and the local tradition of marrying on either side of the border has given rise to trafficking of Vietnamese women in China. Statistics available thus far indicate all eight border towns and counties in Guangxi are affected by the influx of Vietnamese women.
Of the 8,002 Vietnamese women in Guangxi, 7,919 were married to local residents, but none of them had fulfilled the formalities required for legal marriage. A total of 9,745 children were born out of these marriages, but only 0.3 per cent were formally registered.
Although police officers are firm in cracking down on traffickers, and they try to repatriate victims, or those sold for prostitution and forced marriage, actual repatriation is a huge problem. "After we sent them home, these women returned to China. It's an embarrassing situation," says Qi Fuwei, chief of Dongxing City Public Security Bureau.
Legally speaking, the buyer of the trafficked woman should be held liable for violating the law. But in reality, except for those who buy several Vietnamese women and resell them, or buy for prostitution, few buyers have been so far punished. It is just too hard to destroy a de facto marriage of several years. Besides, most farmers don't even know that buying wives is a crime. And the fact that local officials turn a blind eye only adds to the problem.
For researchers, meanwhile, it is surprising that most Vietnamese wives appear quite contented with their families in China. "I feel puzzled - is this illegal migration or human trafficking? If they are willing to marry someone and money changes hands, this could be interpreted as fees paid to matchmakers. I guess the United Nations' working definition on trafficking does not apply here," says Liu Meng, Professor at the National Women's University of China.
Do Thi Huy refers to all her experiences of being kidnapped and later sheltered by Tang Guoqin as his wife, as the design of fate. Tran Hao, 48, abandoned her husband in Vietnam and came to live with a Chinese man. "I'm not afraid of being driven back. So long as Dongxing is open to Vietnam, I'll come back, no matter what."
However, the influx of sold Vietnamese brides in Guangxi and further into inner China might lead to social problems. According to Wei Xiaoning, these marriages - bigamy, in some cases - are not in line with China's Marriage Law, and therefore the law does not protect them.
"In the long run," warns Zheng Zizhen, Director of the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Sociology and Demography, "such migration is not only destructive to the rule of law, but also unnecessary to China with its existing population and employment pressure."