When crossing between Dongxing China and Mon Cai Vietnam, maybe having U.S. dollars for small change would be a good idea.

Crossing an international border on foot was something I had done before, but this was a standout: We were using one that isnt well known to foreigners, between Dongxing, China, and Mong Cai, Vietnam.

Dongxing turned out to be a normal southern Chinese town with more than the usual number of conical straw hats. At the bus station, a swarm of aggressive minivan drivers offered us rides to the border for 10 renminbi RMB. This is not a lot of money by any means. But how far was the border? Perhaps we could walk. It turned out to be a kilometre away – easily walkable – but we had a lot of luggage. We also had no Vietnamese dong, so we had to exchange some of our RMB first.

We were directed to the Bank of China, branches of which you can find in such far corners of the Earth as Spadina and Dundas in downtown Toronto. In the Dongxing branch, we were told that they couldnt change our RMB to dong “because we dont know the exchange rate.”

After a bit of talk and some encouraging smiles on our part, which were designed to cover up our private thoughts, one of the bank officials called in a “friend,” who arrived laden with a large stack of bills, each sporting many zeroes and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Did the banker just call in a black-market moneyman? His leather jacket and dirty fingernails made a remarkable contrast to the groomed bank staff. Of course, he arrived by motorbike.

During a conversation largely in Chinese, secondarily in Vietnamese and with a smattering of English thrown in for good measure, the exchange rate mysteriously rose not by small increments but by orders of magnitude. We ended up with 3,000 dong for each RMB, which seemed reasonable.

In other parts of China, a visit to the Bank of China can pad your pockets, not just with bills, but with lots of little pieces of paper with official stamps to prove your right to those bills. In Dongxing, I felt as if I was looking through the wrong end of the Byzantine Chinese money-transaction telescope. But no red ink was stamped on any forms this time. No forms were seen at all.

If the bank visit provided a bit of comic relief from the officiousness of the Chinese, the actual border crossing made up for it. We had to buy a ticket to cross the bridge, and Chinese officials insisted that we put our bags through one of their ubiquitous X-ray machines. Were leaving, folks! After the 10-minute crossing, we were welcomed by friendly Vietnamese waving us past their X-ray machines, which werent even turned on.

The first thing we saw was a bank machine spewing out Vietnamese dong five million at a time. The second? A hotel advertising prices in – wouldnt you know it – U.S. dollars.

Did the bank really just call in the black market? | Bryne Harris | March 30, 2012 | The Globe and Mail at via http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/destinations/travel-asia/did-the-bank-really-just-call-in-the-black-market/article2387058/.

Did the bank really just call in the black market? - The Globe and Mail