After a nine-month journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia, Nguyễn Thanh Châu joined combat troops heading south, where he was assigned to battlefields in the east and southwest, as well as in the provinces of An Giang, Mỹ Tho, and Đồng Tháp. He was also part of a unit fighting along the Mekong River; Unit O20 used for combating boats in Military Zone 8 and Military Zone 9. He spent most of the remaining years of the war in Tây Ninh Province of the Mekong Delta’s Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười) alongside artists Thái Hà, Huỳnh Phương Đông and Lê Lâm. He witnessed battles in places such as the Tiền River, the Black Virgin Mountain Range (Núi Bà Đen) and near the tunnels of Củ Chi before his advance with the army on its final assault on Saigon in April 1975 and the city’s liberation.
In August 1971, Châu found himself in the Sác Forest (today known as Cần Giờ Mangrove Forest). The forest was an important National Liberation Front (NLF) and Việt Cộng guerrilla base in the south during the war. The forest was located approximately 40km southeast of Saigon near the Lòng Tàu River, which was the main shipping channel from Saigon to Vũng Tàu, a port city and the capital of Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province.
In Châu’s painting (fig. 1), a group of soldiers are crossing through the forest on foot.
Interestingly, Sác Forest was also known as the “Forest of Assassins”. The name came from a misinterpretation of the Vietnamese word Sát to mean “assassin”. The actual name, Rừng Sác, is a Sino-Vietnamese word that approximately translates to “salty forest,” in reference to its proximity to the mangrove swamps of the Mekong Delta.