February 1968: Bằng Lâm Goes South for the Tết Offensive

Operation Rolling Thunder

In the wake of Operation Rolling Thunder and the first US troops landing in Đà Nẵng, North Vietnam released a general order of mobilisation. North Vietnamese men and women flocked to enlist in the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Bằng Lâm joined the rush to protect Vietnam’s independence with the inevitable onset of war. Lâm and his division travelled to South Vietnam as part of the Tết Offensive in February 1968.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Naval Regiment 172 in Hạ Long Bay returning from the attack against USS Maddox in Shantou-class gunboats (a.k.a “Swatow” by the US). This brief conflict led to what was known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Bằng Lâm took the photo while on a field trip for the Industrial Fine Arts College as a fine art student and photographer, August 1964. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

In 1960, Lâm moved to Vietnam from his hometown in Thailand, already influenced by the prospect of full-scale war. After arriving in Vietnam, he immediately started his formal education in fine art. He travelled through North Vietnam on student assignments, making sketches for his college assessments and taking photographs as a hobby. He came to realise that the fleet of “Swatows” he captured sailing back from the Gulf of Tonkin were the same that attacked the USS Maddox (fig.1).1 The following Gulf of Tonkin Resolution initiated US military air and land involvement in Vietnam. Lâm would go on to paint and document Naval Regiment 172 in 1971.

Bằng Lâm Joins 308 Division, 7th Battalion

Although he was keen to learn fine art, Lâm willingly abandoned his studies to join general order of mobilisation and enlist in the PAVN. He left the Industrial Fine Arts College and joined 308 Division’s 7th Battalion in February 1965. Both outfits highly regarded in Vietnamese military tradition. Established during the First Indochina War, 308 Division played an essential role in the final battle at Điện Biên Phủ. The 7th Battalion had also gained notoriety for their participation in the Battle of Bình Ca.

The Tết Offensive

After joining the army in February 1965, Lâm immediately underwent military training. He travelled south with his battalion at the beginning of 1968 (fig. 2), as part of the military drive of the Tết Offensive.

Tết Offensive
Figure 2: Portrait of infantryman Bằng Lâm marching with 308 Division on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 1968. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).
Tết Offensive
Figure 3: Bằng Lâm (second from left) with other soldiers after joining 308 Division on the journey south, 1968. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

Because of the calibre of the military unit he joined, Lâm endeavoured to uphold the division’s well regarded tradition. He participated as a soldier, while also taking charge of the division’s propaganda activities. In both roles as a soldier and an artist, he concentrated on raising the morale of the soldiers around them and leading by example. He became a squad leader and then promoted to deputy platoon leader (fig. 3).


  1. Interview with Bằng Lâm by Witness Collection, 25 November 2019, Hanoi.

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