CHANTING anti-China slogans while riding motorcycles with Vietnamese flags attached, a mob tried to ram through the fortified entrance of the Baoyuan shoe factory's dormitory in Ho Chi Minh City late on Wednesday night.
Inside, some 500 Chinese workers cowered, fearing for their safety and wondering why the friendly Vietnamese they knew would turn against them amid a territorial dispute between their nations.
Holed up in the dormitory for three days, the workers called their loved ones and made a plan in case the mob, which attempted to break in again at 2am, succeeded in entering.
"We decided that we would all go to the canteen and sit there, united, quietly and peacefully, and ask them not to hurt us," Chongqing native Zhang Husheng, 34, told The Straits Times yesterday over the phone from the dormitory as he recounted their harrowing experience.
"Surely they wouldn't kill us all?"
The Baoyuan workers' sleepless night was repeated at factories across Vietnam on Wednesday, as anti-China protests escalated in major cities and claimed at least two lives, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China has accused Vietnam of "conniving" with the protesters, demanded compensation and sent officials to investigate the deaths. Reuters, citing a Vietnamese doctor, said yesterday that 21 have died, including five Vietnamese.
The demonstrations began on Tuesday after Beijing on May 2 placed an oil rig in a part of the South China Sea that is also claimed by Hanoi.
Chinese nationals, mostly working in Taiwanese-owned factories like Baoyuan, have been frantically fleeing Vietnam, where air tickets back home have spiked from the usual 1,000 yuan (S$200) to 6,000 yuan, the workers said.
In Binh Duong province, 120 Chinese workers of the Tongyong shoe factory hid as a mob looted valuables like iPads, reported Chinese media. They later escaped by walking in formation behind a small group of policemen, pretending to be officers as well, said one worker identified as Liu Gang.
At Baoyuan factory, worker Jiang Lang, 32, claimed he and his co-workers were abandoned by their Taiwanese supervisors who had flown home.
The Sichuan native also accused the Chinese authorities of not providing help, despite pleas for help from their relatives.
"We are so helpless," added Mr Zhang. "We heard that Taiwan is sending a plane to take their nationals back home. But the Chinese government does not care if we live or die."
Other Vietnam-based Chinese like architect Tang Weipeng, 33, are glad to have escaped the violence. Mr Tang left Hanoi last Friday with all 14 colleagues. His boss paid for their air tickets and has closed their Hanoi office until the crisis ends, he said.
"We knew there would be trouble so I'm glad we left quickly," he told The Straits Times. "We will stay home for at least two weeks, but I hope it calms down soon. Usually, we don't feel that they have any issues with us."
Similarly, Mr Jiang, who has been working in Vietnam for 10 years, said he hoped the violence would blow over quickly.
"I think they just want to express their anger and trash the factory. But after that, I don't think that they will actually hurt us.
"Before this, we have always been welcomed by them."
Additional Reporting by Carol Feng