Ningmeng, China — For a fortunate few, the freedom trail from Vietnam leads not by perilous boat across storm-prone, pirate-infested waters, but through mountain paths across the land border with China.
China and Vietnam share the same communist ideology. But in contrast to the lips-and-teeth closeness of the days of the Vietnam war, China today has not only accepted thousands of refugees from Hanoi's rule, but also serves as a way station for refugees who have relatives in the Western world.
Tran Vinh Sam has almost made it. He has been notified by the American consulate-general in Canton to come and make final arrangements for travel to Los Angeles, where his parents and sister reside.
Hoang Ly Khieu is less fortunate. She has a mother, brothers, and sisters in the United States, but she faces a problem common to many refugees: Without documents proving parentage, she must demonstrate to the satisfaction of consular officers that she is indeed her mother's daughter.
Sam and Khieu are both ethnic Chinese from northern Vietnam whose parents escaped by boat in 1979, but who for various reasons were unable to leave at the same time. Both were eventually able to reach China by land, hiring guides to take them across unguarded portions of the steep hills and valleys of the border. Sam said he was one of a party of 13, each of whom paid 200 Vietnamese dong or about 20 Chinese yuan ($10) to their guide.
Sam and Khieu, both in their mid-20s, are among 274 refugees from Vietnam housed in Ningmeng's Indochinese Refugee Resettle-ment Center. The neat, well-laid-out camp with permanent brick buildings was built partly with funds from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is intended to be a reception center where refugees are taught Chinese, where their skills and desires are sorted out, and then where they are assigned permanent jobs in Guangxi Province or elsewhere.
Some refugees stay on at the resettle-ment center, either because they cannot find jobs they want, or because they are applying to go overseas. Chinese officials say they place no obstacles in the way of refugees who wish to go to the United States or some other country - the only condition is that the country agree to accept them. A few refugees have tried to sneak out to Hong Kong, only to be expelled by the Hong Kong authorities and sent back to the center.
More than 100 refugees at Ningmeng have requested resettlement overseas, of whom 62 wish to go to the United States, said Li Mingshan, director of the center. Mr. Li and his wife are themselves refugees who once belonged to the Lao Dong party, Vietnam's Communist Party. ''We considered ourselves loyal Vietnamese citizens,'' Mr. Li said. ''During the war against the French, and then against the Americans, we shared weal and woe with our Vietnamese neighbors. Suddenly, in 1978, we were told we were to be expelled because the authorities considered that as ethnic Chinese our primary loyalty would always be to China.''
Most of the refugees are ethnic Chinese or Zhuang, a minority people who live on both sides of the border, being called Hang in China and Nong in Vietnam. A few refugees, however, are from southern Vietnam.
The most interesting recent arrival at the center is Tranly Sang, a young man in black pajamas with a guitar, who crossed the border in April this year.
Sang says his father and grandfather both served the French, and after the partition of 1954 the whole family moved south. Sang joined the South Vietnamese intelligence agency and taught martial arts at the agency's school in Da Lat. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he spent four years in a ''reeducation center, '' then lived a precarious existence on the fringes of society, always looking for a way of escape.
Twice he and members of his family tried to escape by boat. Although he spent altogether 11 ounces of gold, the attempts were unsuccessful. The second time, he was arrested and spent a year in prison.
By this time Sang and his family were desperate. Fortunately, he had an uncle in the border town of Langson, he said.
Sang, his wife, two brothers, and a cousin took advantage of the lunar new year, a season when there is much visiting of relatives, to take the train from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi, and then to Langson. At Langson the group hired guides to the border, at a price much higher than that paid by Sam or Khieu three years earlier. The trip, by dead of night, cost Sang and his family 8,000 Vietnamese dong, the equivalent, in black market terms, of about $400. This was far cheaper, however, than voyage by boat would have been. Sang and his family slipped across the border without incident.
Sang has no intention of staying in China. He hopes, he said, to go either to France or to the United States. If neither country accepts him, he said, ''I will be very sad.''