Late 1970: Bùi Quang Ánh on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail in Savannakhet, Laos

In April 1970, Bùi Quang Ánh travelled south with poet Phạm Tiến Duật, and arrived at Soldier Station 5 (Binh Trạm 5). While at Station 5, however, much like Phạm Đỗ Đồng in the same year, Ánh caught a severe bout of malaria, leaving him delirious and close to death. He recovered after a week and once again returned to Hanoi.

Towards the end of 1970, Ánh travelled to Bản Đông (The East Village) in Savannakhet, Laos, where all wounded soldiers from Quảng Trị Province were sent for treatment. He visited many artillery units and the cave hospital in Bản Đông.

On this particular journey, Ánh drew a number of revealing paintings that perfectly display the life of soldiers part of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) based along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Trường Sơn mountains. Ánh captured Reconnaissance Squad of 33 Battalion (fig. 1), which he described in detail. The engineer with binoculars was watching the sky and counting the number of bombs that American aircraft had dropped, and where. The other soldier was writing down the number of bombs and their locations. They also estimated how many craters were made from the bombing raids. After giving the signal by a series of rifle shots, other soldiers were sent to see whether bombs had hit the roadways or not. Firing three shots meant bombs had hit the road, and engineers were called to fix the roads to maintain truck traffic. Firing four shots meant somebody had been wounded. Five shots signalled that someone had died.

Ánh remembers visiting and painting this squad at noon, which camped in the cave of a mountain where there was space in front of the cave for a performance. After 30 minutes, an amateur performance company arrived to perform. Ánh recalled when the guitars were being played, their echo was very loud, giving the impression of watching a performance in a real theatre. Ánh also explained that he made another painting of the amateur performance company, which is now in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum.

Figure 1: Bùi Quang Ánh, 1970 or 1971, Ta Le Savannakhet (Hồ Chí Minh Trail), “Tổ trinh sát của D33 Công Binh Anh Hùng Đường Quyết Thắng (Reconnaissance Squad of Battalion 33, Heroic Engineers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

The details of how reconnaissance squads and engineers coordinated to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a good working order highlights the trail’s importance to PAVN and NLF troops. Initially constructed in 1959 by Group 559, a special military group assigned to open a supply route through the Trường Sơn mountains to South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was under constant aerial bombardment. Therefore, its secrecy and maintanence was essential.

In order to remain secret, engineers and soldiers often hid in underground shelters (fig. 2). In front of the shelter is a Lagerstroemia Tomentosa Presley tree, typical of the Laos forest, severely marked and gouged by bombing sorties, which indicates just how close the bombs fell to the soldiers. Ánh explained how the shelter was a place where engineers stayed in spite of very humid conditions. This is a typical image of an engineer with a pickaxe on his shoulder and an AK47, two inseparable things for PAVN and NLF engineering soldiers working on the Trail.

Figure 2: Bùi Quang Ánh, 1971, Savannakhet, Laos, “Hầm Công Binh (Engineers’ Shelter).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

Another fascinating side of life in the Trường Sơn mountains revealed by Ánh’s watercolour paintings is that of the rudimentary but effective printing and propaganda effort made in aid of the resistance movement. In another of Ánh’s paintings (fig. 3), we see a soldier busy compiling the Trường Sơn newspaper. This publication was made by the Propaganda Agency belonging to the Command Department of the Trường Sơn Trail. The newspaper was quite simple; illustrations or titles were carved on wood to be printed. The soldier is seen working in a hut made of bamboo to avoid the sun and rain.

Figure 3: Bùi Quang Ánh, 1970, Ho Chi Minh Trail at Savannakhet, Laos, “Khắc gỗ báo Trường Sơn (Wood carving newspaper Trường Sơn).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

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