Between 1963 until 1968, Quách Văn Phong conducted his first tour in South Vietnam, eventually coming to live with the Raglai ethnic minority. He began with the grueling march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with guides who cut the path for him and his unit. Not alone, he travelled with nurses, teachers and other artists.
On reaching Military Zone 6, Phong started work for the newspaper, Tất Thắng. Until his arrival, the newspaper had no illustrations, so he began making woodcut illustrations and taught others how to do the same. The newspaper had a print run of six to seven hundred copies, all done on a manual printing press. It was then that he began using his alias, Nguyễn Anh Việt.
Military Zone 6 included the provinces Nha Trang, Bình Định, Phú Yên, Tuy Hoà, Phan Rang and Phan Thiết. These provinces surrounded Cam Ranh Airforce Base built on the coast by the US military. Vietnamese communist forces encamped in the surrounding hills, aided by local tribal communities.
The Raglai Ethnic Minority
While working for Tất Thắng newspaper, Phong had the opportunity to follow military units throughout Military Zone 6. At the time, resistance forces had very little knowledge of American military bases, airfields and the Strategic Hamlet Program. Phong, however, managed to paint these scenes from a distance on his excursions, later exhibiting his works. He became regarded as a great asset by People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and National Liberation Front (NLF) leaders.
On excursions with PAVN Battalion 840 in Bác Ái district, Phong spent considerable time with the Raglai ethnic minority. With limited firepower, the Raglai fought an unconventional war. Instead, they used materials from their natural surroundings. They laid traps armed with punji sticks (fig. 1) or stones, and relied on slings and crossbows for projectiles. In Phong’s experience, however, they were effective fighters against US and South Vietnamese troops. As their ally, the Raglai were intense, compassionate and loyal people.