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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
Vietnam Fine Arts Association
International private collections
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
Member of the Standing Committee of Vietnam-Laos Friendship Association
1985 – Bronze medal for National Fine Art Exhibition
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Bằng Lâm in an interview with Witness Collection, 25 November 2019, Hanoi.
- Hoàng Mai, “Carrying the machine” back to Thailand “followed Uncle Ho’s footsteps,” 15 January 2010, Thể Thao Văn Hóa.
- Trần Dương, “The sea – A space for living, fighting and creating by Painter Bang Lam,” 21 March 2018, Báo Pháp Luật, Hanoi.
- “Art,” September 2003, Vietnam Fine Arts Association.