8 March 1969: Lê Lam in Long An Province

Between 1965 and 1974, Lê Lam took the advice of his inspirational teacher Tô Ngọc Vân and joined as an artist in the struggle for the liberation of South Vietnam, making documentary sketches along with other artists Hoàng Việt, Thái Bình, Tấn Lực and Trình Núi, stopping first in the Trường Sơn mountains. On his journey, Lam had to carry a heavy load full of artist supplies on top of standard equipment, usually 20 kilograms, but sometimes as much as 35 or 36 kilograms. His journey south took him five months. After two bouts of malaria, Lam finally made it to Tây Ninh Province, albeit considerably weakened.

In July 1966, after Tây Ninh, Lam moved to Long An Province, an area next to Saigon where fighting was exceptionally fierce. Lam remembered, when he lived in An Ninh village, Đức Hòa District, the American and collaborating troops held mopping up operations into the village after the Battle of An Ninh in 1965, twenty-three days out of the month. Naturally, Lam became versed in escape and evade tactics.

While in Long An, Lam captured a female guerrilla, described as “Sister Tiến”, playing the violin (fig. 1). The juxtaposition between the musical artistry and the Ak-47 in the background reveals the reality for many North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas. Many members of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) were given artistic responsibilities for the benefit of morale among the troops. Artists like Lam taught art classes and held exhibitions. Sister Tiến is recorded as being a member of Đoàn Văn Công, an amateur performing group that travelled to entertain troops. Other artists such as Nguyễn Thanh Minh also spent time with various performing groups. Phạm Thanh Tâm recorded the joy such groups gave him on the gruelling march he made to the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954.

Figure 1: Lê Lam, 8 March 1969, Long An Province, “Le Lam; Em Tiến; Đoàn VC FK II (Le Lam; Sister Tiến Đoàn V[ăn] C[ông]FK II (amateur performing group)).” Watercolour on machine-made paper, inscription in graphite pencil.

However, for most of his time in South Vietnam, Lam lived underground close to the Củ Chi tunnel network – a harrowing experience that he recalls with caution. In his estimation, the most important key to survival during that time was to learn which planes were dangerous; if you heard a B52 Bomber, it was too late. The second was to learn the American’s schedule; when they came from Guam they were easy to predict, but when they came from Thailand they were much more irregular. He described how in their shallow tunnel systems, a soldier’s survival rate was around 70-80% if a bomb struck “not too close.”[1]


[1] Lê Lam information taken from independent research conducted by Witness Collection.

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