Bằng Lâm Biography

Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America

Artist and photographer Bằng Lâm was born in 1944 in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. His grandfather, Nguyễn Bằng Cát (also known as Hoe Lợi), specialised in herbal medicine. He immigrated to Thailand in 1890 from his hometown in Nghệ An Province, a decision based on French colonial occupation. Lâm’s family had strong Vietnamese revolutionary roots and never forgot their homeland. He was raised with the knowledge that Vietnam lay in the direction of sunrise in Nakhon Phanom.1

Bằng Lâm with family 1957
Bằng Lâm (middle, left) at 13 years old with family and friends in from of his father’s photography shop, 472, Phuong Nakon, Nakon Phanom Province, Thailand, 1957. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

Hồ Chí Minh

In 1929, revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh spent some time living with Lam’s grandfather in Thailand. Going by the name Thầu Chín, Lam’s grandfather did not know the significance of the “smart old man who knew many languages.” To legalise his status in Thailand, Hồ Chí Minh worked at Hoe Lợi’s herbal medicine shop.2 He also taught Hoe Lợi’s family how to read and write Vietnamese. Naturally, the family grew to learn the fundamental tenants of Vietnamese independence. Something which Hồ Chí Minh was already deeply passionate about.

While talking with Hoe Lợi at his home, Hồ Chí Minh asked his permission to rename his four children. He named the eldest son Cách (Lâm’s father, born as Nguyễn Bằng Sâm). He named the second daughter Mệnh, the third son Thành, and the youngest son Công. Read together, the names make the phrase ‘successful revolution’ (Cách mệnh thành công). Apart from Cách, Lâm’s auntie and uncles all fought for the revolution in the First Indochina War. The table where they spoke resides at Hồ Chí Minh’s memorial in Nakhon Phanom city.

Bằng Lâm's father with friends
Bằng Lâm’s father (far right, standing) with his army friends and their children, Thailand, 1947. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

Lâm’s father was a journalist and photographer, teaching Lâm the art of photography in his younger years. As such, Lâm began his appreciation of art through photography as well as lessons at his primary school in Thailand.

Education

After moving to Vietnam in 1960, however, Lâm followed his desire to study art and become a painter. In the same year as arriving in Vietnam, he enrolled in the Industrial Fine Arts College. There, he learned basic painting skills. Like many students at the time, Lâm took part in many student assignments. On one excursion, he managed to photograph Vietnamese “Swatows” returning from their attack on the USS Maddox. This brief conflict became batter known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. He studied art at the college until the start of Operation Rolling Thunder in August 1964. At this time of heightened bombing, he enthusiastically postponed his studies to join the war.

Bằng Lâm Vietnamese vessels after USS Maddox, Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Naval Regiment 172 in Hạ Long Bay returning from the attack against USS Maddox in Shantou-class gunboats (a.k.a “Swatow” by the US). This brief conflict led to what was known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Bằng Lâm took the photo while on a field trip for the Industrial Fine Arts College as a fine art student and photographer, August 1964. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

The Vietnam War

In February 1965, he enlisted in the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Lâm was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Hanoi Capital (102nd) Regiment, 308 Division – a famous division with a history dating back to the First Indochina War. After training, Lâm marched on Route 9 to the front near Khe Sanh and the border with southern Laos. The area became well known for fierce conflicts. The PAVN fought against the US 1st Infantry Division, or the “Big Red One” as it was known. Lâm sketched as well as actively fought in battles there as a soldier. He was quickly promoted to squad leader and then deputy platoon leader. As a leader, Lâm was required to set an example to junior soldiers by often leading marches into enemy territory.

Bằng Lâm on Ho Chi Minh Trail
Bằng Lâm on the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a soldier artist part of Regiment 308 in Ta La, 1971. Ordinarily, soldiers were not allowed to access this location during the day because of the severe threat of bombing. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

Lâm noted that he sketched to record the people and scenes he came across. This on top of his duties involved in propaganda activities. He paid particular attention to soldiers with high combat records. Lâm consciously prepared his sketches with the mind of using them when composing bigger paintings in the future. At the same time, he continued to take photographs. He published his sketches and photographs in arts and literature newspapers.3

Bằng Lâm Joins the Navy

Sergeant Bằng Lâm
Sergeant Bằng Lâm posted in Hải Phòng, 1972. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

In 1972, Lâm was assigned to work for the Naval Training Bureau. He visited Regiments 171 and 172 and Marine Unit 106. He also visited Group 125, famous for opening the Ho Chi Minh Trail sea route. Lâm focused primarily on propaganda work as an artist for the Bureau, publishing his work in the Navy newspaper. His work fundamentally aimed at boosting the morale of naval soldiers by painting operations, exercises and portraits. Again, he continued to take photographs that he exhibited and published. Lâm was credited with travelling to most of the outlying islands surrounding Vietnam. He estimated travelling to Trường Sa island ten times in ten years. His photographs of this time comprise approximately 80% of the images at the Vietnam Navy Museum.

Bằng Lâm photographs relief naval soldiers en route to Trường Sa
Bằng Lâm photographs relief naval soldiers en route to Trường Sa, 1977. Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

After the liberation of Vietnam, Lâm started work for the Vietnam Fine Arts Association based in Hanoi. Lâm started a campaign to unite artworks made across North and South Vietnam. The campaign concentrated on works that dealt solely with the armed forces during the Second Indochina War. Due to the success of this campaign, he was elected vice-president of the Association in 2004.

From 1988 to 2005, Lâm worked as a staff member of the Vietnam Military History Museum. He maintained his rank of colonel.

Colonel Bằng Lâm at the Vietnam Military History Museum
Colonel Bằng Lâm at the Vietnam Military History Museum, Điện Biên Phủ street, Hanoi, 1979. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

After Military Retirement

Following his tenure as vice-president of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, Lâm started his project Following Ho Chi Minh’s Footprints in Thailand. For the project, Lâm returned to Thailand and photographed the places visited by Ho Chi Minh in 1929.

Lâm also became well known for his project of photographing over 150 Vietnamese visual artists. He exhibited his work at the Fine Art Exhibition House, Hanoi, in November 2009.

Bằng Lâm lives in Hanoi.

BẰNG LÂM GALLERY

Publications

Hội Mỹ Thuật Việt Nam, Nghệ sĩ tạo hình Việt Nam hiện đại (Ký Hệu Hội Viên), 2009, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật, Hà Nội

“Art,” September 2003, Vietnam Fine Arts Association

Collections

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum

Vietnam Fine Arts Association

International private collections

Exhibitions

2009 – Photo Exhibition of 500 portraits of contemporary Vietnamese artists, Fine Art Exhibition House, Hanoi

2010 – Following Ho Chi Minh’s Footprints in Thailand, 110 photos, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum. In celebration of the 1000th year Anniversary of Thăng Long, Hanoi

2011 – Tả Van Quê Vợ (Tả Van, My Wife’s Hometown), oil paintings, 16 Ngô Quyền, Hanoi, Vietnam

2003 – Army art composition camp, Vũng Tàu city4

Official Roles

Member of the Standing Committee of Vietnam-Laos Friendship Association

Awards

1985 – Bronze medal for National Fine Art Exhibition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *