In 1968, the Hanoi Fine Arts College was transformed into the General Department of Logistics for the war effort against America and South Vietnam, at the same time housing some of Vietnam’s most iconic and interesting artworks. Despite being expelled from the College, Bùi Quang Ánh started work for the political arm of the General Department of Logistics on the recommendation of his brother-in-law, assigned to travel the country and document the war through painting.
Ánh started in late-1968 by travelling to Savannakhet Province in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, painting famous locations such as the Đồng Lộc crossroads – a horrible route in Hà Tĩnh Province – military equipment and goods. One of the paintings he made during this time (13 Kilometre of Trường Sơn Trail) was insured for $500,000.
Ánh shows how intensive bombing turned this parts of the forest along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a bare land of stone (fig. 1). A squad of around 12 volunteer youth members, about 20-22 years old, were in charge of looking after and repairing this part of the route. This painting was signed with the signature “…Lâm”. Lâm was Ánh’s driver, who Ánh taught how to draw. (In some cases, initial sketches were drawn by Lâm and then the artwork was finished by Ánh. Ánh let Lâm sign art works that he worked on. Ánh does not remember Lâm’s full name nor what happened to him after 1975).
Ánh also documented the return of engineering soldiers to a cave after work (fig. 2). American bombing blew apart and burnt down many trees. During the rainy season, the trees were dragged into the cave mouth to prevent runoff from torrential downpours. Ánh remembers the rains could be so fierce that soldiers were often stranded on the opposite bank of a rice depot, sometimes causing death by starvation. In this case, the cave had water inside, which the soldiers had to go through, so Ánh called this “Crossing the Water Cave.”
At Kilometer 32, Ánh painted a scene of destruction (fig. 3). After B52 bombing sorties, US aircraft often dropped small cluster bombs, which set fire areas of woodland. This artwork depicts a forest after a bombing. Destroyed landscapes like this were seen all over Vietnam, especially on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
As well as forests and woodland destroyed by American bombing, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and National Liberation Front (NLF) facilities were also destroyed. Ánh documented one such demolition – a large depot for storing rice, canned food and military equipment at Kilometre 32 (fig. 4). A Rockwell OV-10 Bronco reconnaissance aircraft detected the depot, which was subsequently destroyed by B-52 bombers. Everything burned, though trucks continued to run on the Trail from North to South. It is certain that a new depot was built. Again, small cluster bombs (images of small cluster bombs are shown in the painting) were also dropped in an effort to prevent engineers from repairing the roads.
In 1968, Đinh Đức Thiện (brother of both Nobel prize winner Lê Đức Thọ and Mai Chí Thọ) had recently overseen broadening the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Previously, weapons were transported by bikes. After the trail was broadened to accommodate two lanes, weapons were transported by trucks. Supplies of petrol played the most important role in such transport. Petrol was transported by train to Thanh Hoá Province (in North Vietnam) then loaded into other trucks that drove to Quảng Bình Province. Finally, the trucks headed west, through the Trường Sơn mountains, and into Laos. In all likelihood, this is the route walked by Ánh on his assignment as a war artist, and where he painted the scene of petrol tankers in October 1968 (fig. 5).
When Ánh was drawing a Chinese driver, (fig. 6), at Linh Cảm ferry, Ánh remembers meeting another artist, Thành Chương, who was working as an engineer at the Linh Cảm ferry crossing. Chương was studying fine arts, however, he made very modern drawings, which did not meet with the approval of the Principal, so he was sent into the army. This is something Ánh would have sympathised with after his dismissal from the Hanoi Fine Arts College.
Various goods were transported by trucks on the highway to the frontline such as guns, ammunition, rice, food and military equipment (fig. 7). On the reverse of the artwork is an incomplete drawing of the back of a truck. All vehicles were camouflaged so that enemy aircraft could not detect them, using, for example, woven strips of bamboo interlaced over the body of a truck. The interiors of most of the trucks were made from wood.