November-December 1971: Bằng Lâm and the Vietnam People’s Navy

Before he joined the Naval Training Bureau in 1972, war artist Bằng Lâm documented various North Vietnamese military installations. He used these sketches and quick paintings as references for larger paintings in the future. Lâm concentrated on works of propaganda, even after he moved to the Vietnam People’s Navy.

Bằng Lâm
Naval officer Sergeant Bằng Lâm while posted in Hải Phòng, 1972. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

The Vietnam People’s Navy

Formed in 1955, the Vietnam’ People’s Navy was crucial to Vietnamese resistance efforts during the Second Indochina War. Their control of the Gulf of Tonkin allowed vital equipment and supplies to arrive from China and elsewhere. From there, the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail sea route facilitated the distribution of relief supplies and troops to South Vietnam. This worked in tandem with the Ho Chi Minh Trail land route through Laos.

The Vietnam People’s Navy utilised the natural harbour of Hạ Long Bay as a base for seafaring activities. Although channels between the karst islands were mined by the US Navy, they offered security and anonymity for the North Vietnamese. Hải Phòng port provided protection with heavy anti-aircraft installations aimed over the bay at incoming enemy bombing campaigns.

Bằng Lâm Records Navy Troops

Before officially joining the Navy Training Bureau, Lâm travelled to Hạ Long Bay on a propaganda assignment.

Lâm described his art work as a conduit for troop morale. He was given roles of leadership and responsibility while assigned to 308 Division of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Lâm applied the same sense of responsibility when focused on propaganda work for the navy. He considered his gifts for photography and art as a natural tool of encouragement for naval soldiers.1

Vietnam People's Navy
Figure 1: Bằng Lâm, November 1971, Hạ Long Bay. “Trung đoàn 172 (Regiment 172).” Watercolour on paper.

Lâm’s quick preliminary sketches in watercolour show the preparations and exercises common in normal navy life. Three soldiers on the deck of a ship put on gas masks in a drill against potential toxic chemical attack (fig. 1). Lâm described it as a compulsory precaution before military vessels set sail. The seamen are framed by the islands of Hạ Long Bay in the background.

Vietnam People's Navy
Figure 2: Bằng Lâm, 20 December 1971, Regiment 172, Hạ Long Bay. “Kiểm tra dẫn trước ngay ti bích (Checking bullets before the test).” Watercolour on paper.

In another addition, Lâm depicted a unit cleaning bullets and operating a 37mm ship’s cannon (fig. 2). Platoon leaders supervised three-man units while they made final checks before setting sail. Conflict over the Gulf of Tonkin erupted after the start of US bombing campaigns in 1965. Ensuring equipment operated in good working order was vital to success in the region.


  1. Interview conducted with Bằng Lâm by Witness Collection, 25 November 2019, Hanoi.

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