THE ARTISTS AND THEIR STORIES BEHIND VIETNAM'S WARTIME ART
October-December 1970: Phạm Đỗ Đồng’s Portraits of Guerrilla Commandos in South Vietnam
Immediately after leaving the Vietnam Fine Arts College, Phạm Đỗ Đồng was sent to the 105 Training Camp in Hòa Bình Province, where he learnt basic military training for six months. In November 1968, under heavy fire, he travelled to the south of Vietnam to fight on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the way to Saigon. Normally, the trip from north to south Vietnam took three months of walking. However, Đồng completed the journey in six months due to a serious bout of malaria, at times so bad that someone had to carry his backpack. His feet and knees were so swollen that he could only walk without the aid of crutches. However, out of a sense of shame if he were to turn back, he carried on, cured in the end by a mysterious liquid that he called “bear liquid”, which healed his swollen feet and knees in three days.
Đồng stayed in the south from 1969 until 1975, mainly based in Tây Ninh Province, without returning to his home in Hanoi. Working for the Trường Sơn Fine Arts Department in the Central Committee Propaganda Department for the South (The Liberational Fine Arts Department of South Vietnam National Liberation Front), Đồng saw violent action while documenting the lives of Divisions 4, 5, 7 and 9 Division based in Tây Ninh Province as a journalist and war artist. A harrowing and confusing time, Đồng remembers his time most clearly while attached to Division 5. Intensely concerned with documenting reality at the time, he still employed an artist’s eye searching for beauty. The charcoal sketch of a young National Liberation Front (NLF) soldier (fig. 1) was typical of the type of soldiers Đồng would have spent so much time with.
Đồng again created a portrait from charcoal, this time of a Division 4 (“D4”) Commando Scout named Dũng (fig. 2). The commandos were special forces units whose missions involved cutting barbed wire, lying in wait to throw grenades into enemy bunkers and drawing maps of inside enemy bases. However, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US troops kept dogs and geese to guard their bases and compounds, as they were very sensitive to smell and noise. In order to avoid having their human odour detected, commandos had to lie outside camps for several days and nights. They also discovered that geese were very afraid of snakes, so commandos used grilled dọc mùng – a kind of vegetable – to scare them. The geese were so scared of grilled dọc mùng they didn’t make a sound. Needless to say, small and agile people were preferred in the Commando Scout Division.