By the beginning of 1967, America had increased its troop strength to 400,000 soldiers in Vietnam – a level never experienced before. As a result, air, land and sea battles happened with increasing regularity, therefore increasing the demand for soldiers in both the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). For North Vietnam, it was a stage in their conflict with America and South Vietnam where support from the southern population allied with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was as important as ever.
Early in 1967, artists Nguyễn Thế Vinh, Nguyễn Thanh Châu and Huỳnh Văn Thuận painted in different locations in North Vietnam. In their portraits and landscapes, the artists offer a rare view of life in a country beset by war.
In Bình Giang, a rural district of Hải Dương Province in the Red River Delta, Nguyễn Thế Vinh, documented the region’s guerrilla soldiers. Vinh’s painting of January 1967 shows a female guerrilla soldier (fig. 1), with a gun slung over her shoulder, standing in front of a field. It is uncertain whether the field represented was arable or not. However, there is a strong connotation that the guerrilla soldier was defending one of North Vietnam’s most important rice-producing areas. Additionally, the delta region hosted other important economic activities such as fishing, aquaculture, land reclamation for agriculture, harbour construction and mangrove forestry.
Also in January 1967, Nguyễn Thanh Châu spent time in Sầm Sơn with PAVN forces, a coastal town in Thanh Hóa Province in central North Vietnam, approximately 220 kilometres south of Hải Dương Province. Another example of a female in repose (fig. 2) Châu gives a full picture of resistance life. A female guerrilla leans against a tree reading while carrying a rifle. In the distance is the clear silhouette of another guerrilla soldier. Sầm Sơn had been renowned for its beauty since 1906, when French colonial rulers used it as a resort town, constructing many holiday villas. It was also an important logistical ground for Việt Minh forces at the time, allowing them to transport supplies and equipment to the south.
Further south towards the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Huỳnh Văn Thuận painted the coastal port town of Đồng Hới (fig. 3). By 1967, the town was a frequent target of US naval gunfire as part of Operation Sea Dragon, which sought to interdict sea-based supply lines running from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, as well as destroying land targets. Operation Sea Dragon forces were to intercept and destroy waterborne logistic craft, which included everything from large self-propelled barges to small junks, fishing vessels and sampans.
Best remembered for creating the first portraits of Hồ Chí Minh for North Vietnam’s new banknotes in 1953, Thuận rendered the mouth of the Nhật Lệ River at Đồng Hới in 1967.
Drawn from the northern side of the DMZ, judging by the Communist flag in the top left of the painting, Thuận immediately conveys a scene of destruction. As a poignant reminder of Operation Sea Dragon, we can see houses burning and a village of people rushing to and from the water’s edge for water.
Interestingly, however, Thuận also portrays a migration of people from across the narrow mouth of Nhật Lệ River. Only 80 kilometres from the DMZ, the land in between Đồng Hới was open to fierce fighting and bombing raids from the air and the sea. Thuận’s portrayal of the migration of people further north of the DMZ could signify the general political ideology of the DRV at the time, portraying itself as a benefactor for all Vietnamese allied to the Communist cause.