After being commissioned to head south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Thái Hà started a cultural programme in the provinces of South Vietnam. He was in charge of managing the Liberty Art Department that included artists Huỳnh Phương Đông, Trang Phượng, and Nguyễn Thanh Châu. In 1964, he set up a liberty art class in Bến Tre Province in the Mekong Delta, close to the Cambodian border. In 1965, he established another liberty class in Cần Thơ Province. In 1966, he established his third liberty class in Cà Mau Province.
We can see the effort of people allied with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government in Hà’s sketch (fig. 1), which shows a woman shovelling earth and inscribed with “Open the route.” By 1966, after US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces had begun operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder, large parts of communist-occupied land were bombed incessantly by American aircraft. As such, roads and bridges were continually in need of repairs. Of greatest importance was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main artery that fed southern National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) militia units with arms, equipment and supplies. These supply routes were doubly important by 1966 as the NLF had increased their military resistance against American and South Vietnamese forces.
Hà’s portrayal of life in southern forests lends an appreciation to just what dangers his work entailed. Based behind enemy lines, the need for secrecy was paramount. Only a year previously in 1965, after establishing the art class in Cần Thơ Province, an exhibition organised by him and his students was held in Phụng Hiệp Commune. Due to the concentration on propaganda in the exhibition, the exhibition lasted for only one night as the South Vietnamese authorities shut it down.
The furthest southwesterly province with a long coastline, Hà documented the coastal villages of Cà Mau Province in detail – from their people to their equipment – in October 1966. The painting entitled Camp Đáy in Cà Mau Province (fig. 2) shows the typical fishing net used in the region, even in some cases until today. The Đóng đáy (bottom net) is a type of net used to catch fish and shrimp, usually laid on the river or sea bed.
Two months later, Hà arrived in U Minh, where he spent time documenting PLAF soldiers, their families and a new liberty art class. In his sketch titled Soldier’s Father (fig. 3), one gets a sense of the intimate relationships Hà developed with the people of Cà Mau Province.
The U Minh mangrove forest in Cà Mau Province was an important retreat for soldiers in the region, as it had been for the Việt Minh during the First Indochina War, where they sought refuge and lived in the dense mangroves. Another forest in Trà Vinh Province (fig. 4), was also used as a safe haven for those allied with the NLF and PLAF.
In U Minh Forest, one feels a sense of the secrecy Hà and others operated under. Hà depicted a man with a gun slung over his shoulder pulling a boat through a mangrove swamp (fig. 5). Hà painted the scene from his own perspective inside the boat, and the soldier pulling him along was probably assigned to Hà for his protection. This artwork was made at the time that Hà was in Cà Mau to establish the third liberty art class.
In perhaps the most revealing painting (fig. 6), Hà’s intimate portrayal of a young female artist, with possibly another student behind her, shows how those participants in the liberty art classes painted inside boats floating in mangrove swamps. Without shoes and wearing simple clothes, images such as this emphasise the raw and rugged nature of life on the side of NLF and PLAFrevolutionaries.
In 1968, Thái Hà passed through Cà Mau into Cambodia and then back into Vietnam via the Tây Ninh provincial border. He held an exhibition in Cambodia before returning to the regional base in Củ Chi. He also stayed at the consulate of the South Vietnam liberty frontier, where he held an exhibition of paintings from the war. After seeing photos of the exhibition, President Hồ Chí Minh was pleased and ordered that the exhibition be held again in Hanoi. The authorities of North Vietnam constantly promoted the exhibit in the media, and it was considered a great event at the time.