1951-1953: The Campaigns for the Red River Delta and Hòa Bình

In the years leading up to 1953, both the French and the Vietnamese increased their military scope, resulting in greater violence and further loss of life. General Võ Nguyên Giáp, infamous as a strategic genius in Vietnam without comparison in 1951, took full advantage of the People’s Army of Vietnam’s (PAVN) victory on the northern border to begin a campaign for the Red River Delta, fighting ferociously in Ninh Bình, Yên Phúc and Thái Bình along the Day River towards the ultimate goal, the port of Hải Phòng. Even more integral as French forts in the north, Hải Phòng was France’s main landing ground for troops and re-supplies in northeast Vietnam via the Gulf of Tonkin. If the PAVN could take Hải Phòng, the French would be all but finished.

After initially taking control of the Delta through bloody battles along the Day River, the PAVN were eventually repelled from the area by a combination of heavy firepower and stealth tactics under the short leadership of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.[1] Vietnamese casualties tallied at 9,000 dead, with 1,000 PAVN troops taken as prisoners.[2] However, French forces were not without personal loses. In what could be described as a dismal example of the folly of war, General de Lattre’s only son, Bernard de Lattre de Tassigny, died under his father’s orders to hold Ninh Bình in a fight to the death. If anything, General de Lattre sacrificing his own son emphasised the importance of controlling the Red River Delta.

Elsewhere, Vietnamese forces enjoyed one crucial victory leading into the beginning of 1952 that would aid their overall victory against the French. Hòa Bình, approximately seventy kilometres west of Hanoi, was of vital importance to the Vietnamese resistance for allowing free movement of troops to the northwest and west of Hanoi, as well as providing a base on the route used to ferry supplies from China and the northern territories. Bolstered by his victory in holding the Red River Delta, General de Lattre chose to attack in March 1951.

In the same vein as most battles during the First Indochina War, the Battle for Hòa Bình ebbed and flowed between French and PAVN forces. As part of General de Lattre’s plan to draw the Việt Minh out into the open where the French could make the best use of their bombing capabilities, he staged French attacks initially outside Hòa Bình, along Route 6 and the Black River[3] supply lines. French forces took Hòa Bình on 22 November 1951 suffering light casualties.

General Giáp’s response was overwhelming and brutal, typifying the battle’s monikers as the “Meat Grinder Campaign” and the “Hell of Hòa Bình”. Employing tactics reminiscent of World War I against French fortifications, trenches and machine-gun posts, the PAVN fell in their scores fighting in Động Bên, Xóm Pheo, Bãi Lăng, Xuân Mai, Kem Pass and Áo Trách.

By this time, however, the French were under new leadership. General de Lattre had been forced to retire from Vietnam after falling terminally ill in September 1951. Now, led by General Gonzales de Linares, French forces in the Hòa Bình Campaign were overstretched along Route 6 and the Black River. With persistent ambush, sabotage and en masse full frontal attacks, the PAVN imposed a haemorrhaging of French troops, forcing new Commander-in-Chief Raoul Albin Louis Salan to order a retreat. In February 1952, just over a month after General de Lattre had died at the Neuilly military hospital from cancer, the French evacuation from Hòa Bình was complete… as if the passing of France’s great military leader, equally revered by General Giáp and the PAVN, [4] had permanently dulled the French military sword.

In the meantime, other non-military events suggested a strengthening of the Vietnamese position. Hồ Chí Minh created the Lao Động (Worker’s Party) in February 1951, further solidifying his control over the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. While not immediately hard-hitting, the formation of Lao Động finally gave Hồ Chí Minh and his communist supporters the credibility in government that they had lacked since November 1945, when the preceding Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was dissolved.

Also, in 1951, Tô Ngọc Vân was reinstated as director of the Vietnam Fine Arts College after his time at war. Having left Hanoi in 1945, Vân had embarked on a number of assignments with cultural, theatrical, propaganda groups, newspapers, and had spent three months recording the daily lives and activities of the Capital Regiment. Returning when he did, battle-hardened and a practised artist beyond measure after the liberation of Lào Cai, Vân was the obvious choice to lead fresh young students into the artistic fray.

At the same time as the French attack on Hòa Bình until the end of 1952, other Vietnamese artists were contributing to the war effort all over the country. In 1951, Huỳnh Văn Thuận began working at the Fine Arts department of operations in Thái Bình in the Red River Delta, a prominent posting considering General Giáp’s ongoing Red River Delta offensive.

In the same year, Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc won the National Fine Arts Exhibition. In itself a promising achievement for the thirty-two-year-old artist, it also highlighted tremendous skill considering his less than glowing government sentiments. In much the same way as Tô Ngọc Vân spoke out against propaganda “art”, there is documented evidence that Ngọc began acting against government policy in the early-to-mid-1950s, questioning and criticising the Communist Party of Vietnam to limit freedom of speech. For his future participation in the journal Nhân Văn, he spent 1957 to 1959 in a re-education camp.

In 1952, Trần Hữu Chất joined the revolutionary army. Barely an adult at nineteen years old, Chất was no stranger to the war movement in general. From as early as 1945, at only twelve years old, Chất had been involved in propaganda for the Youth Movement of the Communist Party. In 1946 he was assigned to the Information and Propaganda Office in Kỳ Anh commune, which printed art for Hà Tĩnh Province Information Department. In his new position with the revolutionary army in 1952, Chất was assigned to the local troop newspaper in Vinh, in Military Zone 4. He worked as a war correspondent and an illustrator for Quân Địa Phương (Local Army Newspaper). He also recompiled verses written by soldiers at the front and developed his skill as a poet, a practice he continued throughout his life.

As further evidence of the willingness artists displayed in fighting French forces, Trần Viet Sơn found himself battling in the mountainous northwestern region of Tây Bắc in 1952. At only seventeen-years-old, Sơn had not yet embarked on his artistic career – instead contributing to the war effort as a regular armed soldier with the E76-F316 troop. While not quite Tô Ngọc Vân’s contemporary as a second-generation artist, Sơn’s artistic war would only truly begin against American forces during the Second Indochina War. However, encamped 161 kilometres away from Lào Cai, his action in 1952 proves that, despite the liberation of the northern border two years previously as witnessed by Tô Ngọc Vân, the northwestern region was still a battleground. After his time with E76-F316, culminating in the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, Sơn would eventually be appointed by his troop to study at the Vietnam Fine Arts College. Sơn’s time in the mountains would define him as an artist, changing his given name, Trần Thăng Giai, to Trần Viet Sơn – loosely translated as “Vietnamese Mountain”.

In that same year, Tô Ngọc Vân’s literal contemporary Văn Giáo, another first-generation artist, continued travelling around Vietnam in contributing to the war effort. Having participated in the Border Campaign at the same time as Tô Ngọc Vân, after tours in the Việt Bắc, the Central Provinces and Khánh Hòa Province during the 1940s, Giáo was battle-hardened arguably beyond any other artist. In 1952 Giáo found himself in the south, fighting in the Trung Lần Delta Campaign, 166 kilometres from Saigon. How he managed to persuade himself to fight in the Trung Lần Delta, after vicious fighting on the northern border, is a question that can only be answered with the knowledge that he probably walked the length of the country.

Another second-generation artist spent 1952 in China, proving first hand China’s support for Vietnam’s communist resistance to French colonial rule. Phạm Thanh Tâm was sent to China to train in an artillery unit. A conscious decision, his training came as an eerie premonition to his involvement in the conclusive battle of the First Indochina War against the French at Điện Biên Phủ. As Tâm put it:

“I started sketching again when I was sent to training camp in China, in preparation for our attack on the French military base at Điện Biên Phủ.”

Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Link, London

To put these artists’ activities into perspective, 1952 also added another artist to the fold; Lương Xuân Đoàn was born in Haï Duong, Hanoi. Đoàn’s paintings would be celebrated in the 1980s at two instalments of the National Exhibition of Fine Arts. As it was at the time, Đoàn was born into a changing environment where Hồ Chí Minh’s communist resistance against French rule started to show real signs of confidence. In the same year, Tô Ngọc Vân, while contributing to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government’s campaign to boost production and economization, painted portraits of Hồ Chí Minh and renowned French impressionist painter, Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin. Long the subject of Vietnamese artists – particularly those that made a name for themselves capturing ‘Uncle Ho’ like Văn Giáo, Phan Kế An and Huỳnh Văn Thuận – the assumption behind Vân’s rendering of Hồ Chí Minh was to bolster communist national pride. The motivation behind his portrait of Martin, however, was less patriotic in nature. Instead, even though Martin was an enemy compatriot and deceased in 1952, Martin’s portrait once again reaffirmed Vân’s love of French-inspired impressionist art.

A year later, despite the death of Joseph Stalin, the ideals of independence put forward in Hồ Chí Minh’s Lao Động Manifesto seemed ever closer to fruition. Both Laos and Cambodia were declared as free of French rule, a boon to Vietnamese revolutionaries not only because it signified the early death throes of imperialist France in Indochina, but also because Vietnam’s western border was now open to Viet Minh troops, allowing them to hyper-extend stretch French forces to a breaking point. Eastern Laos also provided a safe haven for PAVN forces, as Laotians welcomed them as a perfunctory alternative to French colonial occupation.

Clearly sensing France’s increasing vulnerability, Hồ Chí Minh announced that he was ready to discuss peace proposals with France in 1953. If this purposeful and commanding act was not enough, it also transpired that Hồ Chí Minh had already begun plans for an independent North Vietnam. Artists Huỳnh Văn Thuận, Lệ Pha and Bùi Trang Chọc were employed by the State to create the first portraits of Hồ Chí Minh for the country’s new bank notes. As mentioned above, Huỳnh Văn Thuận, a first-generation artist, dedicated his career sketching, drawing and painting Hồ Chí Minh. A revolutionary with propaganda tendencies, Thuận once said:

“I specialize in drawing Uncle Ho, specializing in drawing paintings about Uncle, the more to exemplify moral revolution, moral Uncle Ho.”

Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts, Fine Art Information, No. 17-18

Meanwhile, Tô Ngọc Vân would spend 1953 on his penultimate assignment before his fateful move to Điện Biên Phủ. Whether due to his far from unwavering support for propaganda art under the DRV or not, Vân was sent on a re-educational pilgrimage to the village Ninh Dân in Phú Thọ Province, just over 110 kilometres northwest of Hanoi. Here, he lived with the villagers and painted pictures of their struggle against landlords. Certainly a government-backed assignment, Vân’s mission reflected Hồ Chí Minh’s Stalinist ambitions for equal redistribution of land between the poor in rural populations. Listed as point number seven, “Carrying out Agrarian Reform”, in the Lao Động Manifesto, Hồ Chí Minh highlighted the importance of land reform to:

“improve the living conditions of the peasants and to mobilise the majority of the people, that is, the peasants, to participate actively in the armed Resistance, to increase production and ensure supplies.”

“The Manifesto and Platform of the Viet-Nam Lao Dong Party”, Supplement to People’s China, Vol. III, No. 9, May 1 1951

By 1956, 13,500 landlords and reactionaries would be murdered. For Vân, the assignment would produce some of his more notable works in a series that was later exhibited to high acclaim in Northern Vietnam.

Baiting the rural peasant population with promises of land reform was part of a larger, softer conflict in the battle for hearts and minds in rural Vietnam. Where French forces travelled to villages offering medicine and democratic education, Hồ Chí Minh relied on asserting peasant land titles for support in the communist-inspired “perpetual struggle” against all “imperialist” factions, together with installing Việt Minh overseers among rural populations that infiltrated communities no sooner had French assistance left.

The importance of support for both French forces and Hồ Chí Minh’s DRV came to a fore in late-1953. On 20 November, French troops occupied Điện Biên Phủ, goading General Giáp and the PAVN into a battle designed to end Việt Minh activity over large swathes of northeastern Laos. It was a battle that would change history, or at least the historic colonial rule over Vietnam, and French claims to Indochina as a whole.


[1] General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny commanded French troops in French Indochina from 1950 to September 1951.

[2] Windrow, Martin, The Last Valley. Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, 2004, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

[3] Also known as the Đà River, meaning “dark brown” in Vietnamese.

[4] After de Lattre’s arrival in Vietnam, Viet Minh General Giáp proclaimed that his army would face “an adversary worthy of its steel” as documented in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, 1983, Viking Press, New York, p. 185.

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