1950: Tô Ngọc Vân and The Border Campaign

In modern-day Vietnam, one artist’s legacy unites Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City beyond standard political ties. Artist Tô Ngọc Vân is immortalised in Vietnam’s two historically significant cities by a road in each named after him. In Hanoi, it takes the form of a circular road feeding streets and lanes in Quảng An Commune, one of the capital’s colloquial, inner-city “villages”, spilling into West Lake (Hồ Tây). Quảng An is a popular residential area for foreigners, but also a community where Vietnamese families frequent Buddhist temples and đình[1], friends indulge in nightly meetings at bia hoi[2] and where contemporary artists have studios and galleries. In Ho Chi Minh City, Tô Ngọc Vân Road stretches from the Cầu vượt Gò Dưa overpass in Tam Bình to a roundabout in Phước Long, four kilometres away. The road is peppered with schools, shopping centres, Buddhist temples, churches, pharmacies, banks, cafés and restaurants.

This is Tô Ngọc Vân’s legacy as an artist. Famous as one of Vietnam’s first generation artists, part of a group that was educated at the French-inspired École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Vân is remembered as a pioneer of Vietnamese oil art as well as an invaluable and prolific teacher. He is also remembered as a hero, his life cut short at forty-eight years old in Ba Khe, beyond the Lũng Lô pass in Yên Bái Province, eight hours from the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ.

In the last four years of his life, Vân’s experiences provide a personalised case study of the end of French involvement in Vietnam, himself anchored to historical events that would go on to give North Vietnam a brief respite from foreign hostility. Also, Vân’s artistic character and motives provide a unique and intriguing example of a Vietnamese artist, beyond their typical representation as revolutionary, propaganda-inclined Việt Minh cadres.

By 1950, Hồ Chí Minh’s self-appointed Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Việt Minh had already been battling French forces for four years in an attempt to prise the Jewel from the French Empire’s Crown. In 1950, the same year as Vân was made the director of the Central Fine Arts College in Phú Thọ Province, France found itself under huge pressure to end the war in Vietnam as quickly as possible. Calls from the French National Assembly demanded that President Vincent Auriol’s government cut military spending, thereby demanding a recall of French forces in Vietnam. France’s allies in Europe were mostly unwilling to support French interests in Indochina, still rebuilding after World War II, futilely managing their own crumbling empires around the world, and fresh with memories of war’s duplicitous nature. Across the Atlantic, President Harry Truman forced America into the war with North Korea, committing forces without consulting Congress and eliminating any possible hope of provision. For Hồ Chí Minh and PAVN, however, aid was applied like a warm balm by their Chinese neighbours, under the newly appointed leadership of Mao Zedong, swinging the tide of war in favour of the Việt Minh through training, logistical support and modern military equipment.

Strategically, the Border Campaign along Vietnam’s border with China was crucial to the success of North Vietnam’s independence. With French forts spanning the northern border along Route Coloniale 4[3], taking the forts meant a crippling blow to French supply lines, especially important considering General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s future plans to assert control over Tonkin and the Red River Delta.

Vân’s live sketch assignment to Highway 4, along with Việt Minh soldiers fuelling the Border Campaign, took him to Lào Cai, the capital of Lào Cai Province and the eastern end of the string of French encampments along the northern border. He would have had a similar perspective to those in other areas including Cao Bằng, Dong Khé, Thất Khê and Lạng Sơn: remote, hilltop towns surrounded by rugged mountain terrain connected by poor roads snaking through a blanket of jagged peaks and troughs. The isolated forts proved difficult bases to defend, the French relying largely on standing armies encamped within the forts, and the superior build quality and defensive capabilities of the structures themselves. As French forces came to realise in these mountain regions, the exposed roads and forest cover allowed the Việt Minh to set deadly ambushes, part of their guerrilla warfare repertoire and proficiency in fighting “la guerre sale”[4]. Largely inaccessible to aircraft, the French forts would suffer from little air support or resupplies, such a dominant advantages over the Việt Minh in other parts of the country.

The Battle of Route Coloniale 4 was short – the definitive battle lasting from 30 September to 18 October 1950 – and, much to the embarrassment of French forces, an absolute victory for the PAVN and the Việt Minh. Using the benefit of a full force comprised of roughly 200,000 combatants in 103 battalions, General Giáp began with harassing smaller French outposts along Route Coloniale 4, using mines and ambushes. As the French retreated in greater numbers to the main fortifications, Giáp finally launched a full-scale assault on Dong Khé aimed at dividing French supply lines, which fell after two days leaving only twelve French survivors out of three hundred initial troops. After bitter fighting around Dong Khé, Thất Khê and the Cốc Xá gorge, French forces were annihilated, in one instance leaving only twenty-three survivors of the Foreign Legion’s 1st Parachute Battalion – the first French parachute battalion lost in combat.

Lào Cai was liberated in November 1950.

Even though a sketching assignment, Tô Ngọc Vân’s motives behind taking part in the Border Campaign went beyond what might be imagined as merely propaganda purposes[5]. The battles along the northern border, in the Red River Delta and later at Hòa Bình were major strategic and historical events. Without the availability of a camera or video equipment, Vietnamese forces relied on little else to document the First Indochina War other than skilled artists willing to endanger their lives on the front lines of battle.

In fact, Vân had made his position clear on the subject of propaganda two years previously. At the National Convention on Art and Literature in 1948, Vân had engaged in heated debates with then Party General Secretary Trường Chinh on the topic of whether propaganda paintings could be considered works of art. These debates highlighted Vân’s lukewarm acceptance of the principles of revolutionary ideals and social realism in art. While unquestionably a patriot, it is also true that Vân devoted his life as much to art as he did to his country, the opinions he expressed at the National Convention on Art and Literature aimed at defending art itself rather than his homeland. His dedication to art and artistic culture was no less apparent during his time as director of the Central Fine Arts College in Phú Thọ Province, having been documented as leading students on walks through the countryside and ruminating on the works of Millet, Courbet, Monet and Renoir in relation to the rural Vietnamese aesthetic.[6] This juxtaposition as both warrior artist and artistic romantic neutralises Vân’s image as simply a revolutionary Việt Minh soldier.

In some respects, Vân’s willingness to join Việt Minh troops in battle stemmed simply from a proud heritage of Vietnamese people – from artists to engineers – to join the fight against foreign powers. Vân’s involvement in the war paved the way for other artists including Văn Giáo, Phan Kế An, Huỳnh Văn Thuận, Nguyễn Thế Vinh and Trinh Kim Vinh – as well as Nguyễn Thanh Minh, who volunteered to join the resistance against the French when only ten years old. He also inspired others as an example of unflinching patriotic sacrifice. It goes some way in stressing just how used Vietnamese people had become to joining resistance groups that Vân and others did so without question.


[1] Typical buildings found in Vietnam villages, dedicated to worshipping the village God, the village founder or a local hero. They also play the role as a meeting place of the people in the community, akin to modern civic centres.

[2] Beer cafés, specific to Hà Nội, and far less culturally significant in Hồ Chí Minh City

[3] Commonly referred to as Highway 4.

[4] “The dirty war”, a phrase used by the French to describe guerrilla tactics used by the Viet Minh, so different from European tactics in WWII.

[5] Based on his participation with Việt Bắc Propaganda Group in 1946

[6] Vietnamese Painting: From Tradition to Modernity, Corinne de Ménonville, ARHIS, p. 173

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