January 1968: Nguyễn Thanh Châu Depicts the Tết Offensive in Saigon

At the end of January 1968, Nguyễn Thanh Châu witnessed the beginning of the Tết Offensive in Saigon. The Tết Offensive was one of the largest military operations undertaken by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) forces during the Second Indochina War. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centres throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Vietnamese holiday, Tết Nguyên Đán, when the first major attacks occurred.

Châu hurriedly captured the movement of soldiers through Trung Chánh, a district within Saigon, at the start of the Tết Offensive (fig. 1). After graduating the Vietnam Fine Arts College, Châu made a gruelling nine-month journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam, passing through Laos and Cambodia. Once in South Vietnam, Châu joined combat troops heading further south where he was assigned to battlefields in the southeast and southwest, as well as in the provinces of An Giang, Mỹ Tho, and Đồng Tháp. He was also part of a unit fighting along the Mekong River; Unit O20 used for combating boats in Military Zones 8 and 9. He spent most of the remaining years of the war in Tây Ninh Province of the Mekong Delta’s Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười), alongside artists Thái Hà, Huỳnh Phương Đông and Lê Lâm. He witnessed battles in places such as the Tiền River, the Black Virgin Mountain Range (Núi Bà Đen) and near the tunnels of Củ Chi before his advance with the PAVN on its final assault of Saigon in April 1975.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Thanh Châu, 1968, Trung Chánh, Long An Province, “Mậu Thân 1968 (1968 Tet Offensive).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

The soldiers depicted were heading to Long An Province from Trung Chánh in Saigon. The painting recorded a violent air battle between the US Air Force, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and NLF soldiers.

In such a chaotic situation, a war journalist holding a simple video camera was carrying out his job. Châu believed that a reporter and an artist who were following the liberation troops were quite similar in appearance, with a backpack containing personal items, clothes, a camera, a sidearm pistol for self-defence, a water-resistant sheet to shield from the sun and rain and to protect belongings when swimming across rivers. However, Châu remembered the difference in his drawing bag, that video journalists did not carry, which might have been the heaviest luggage he carried.

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