Early 1972: Artists Capture Increased Military Mobilisation in South Vietnam

At the beginning of 1972, two months before the Easter Offensive, many artists working on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), alongside troops from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), found themselves dispersed throughout South Vietnam capturing scenes of military mobilisation with watercolours, gouache, and graphite.

In January, travelling through the Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười), west of Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta, Trưóng Hiếu recorded a secret nightly march across the interior wetlands (fig. 1). Hiếu depicts a group of soldiers stealthily crossing a monkey bridge under the cover of darkness. The Plain of Reeds covered (pre-1975) Kiến Tường, Kiến Phong, Hậu Nghĩa, Long An and Định Tường provinces (now Long An and Đồng Tháp provinces). It was an important base for Việt Minh fighters during the First Indochina War against the French and subsequently in the Second Indochina War against the US-backed Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

Following the creation of this art work, the Plain of Reeds was the target of heavy attacks by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US air support in the Summer of 1972, with more than 100 B-52 air strikes carried out to relieve the isolated base at Hậu Mỹ.

Figure 1: Trưóng Hiếu, January 1972, Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười), west of Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta. Watercolour with gouache on machine-made paper.

Further north in the Trường Sơn mountains, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ continued his assignment on the western edge of Quảng Trị Province bordering eastern Laos. Following on from his documentation of the  Lam Sơn 719 Campaign in 1971, Thọ painted a mobile temporary kitchen (fig. 2), constructed from fabric and tree branches by the Army Feeding Unit (bộ phận nuôi quân) of the 230 Artillery Regiment (Trung đoàn pháo cao xạ 230). In the painting, the Regiment is preparing a meal of bánh chưng cakes (rice cakes made from glutinous rice, mung beans, pork and other ingredients). A traditional food eaten in Vietnam for celebrating Tết Nguyên Đán, the cakes were accompanied by boiled giò thủ sausage (grilled Vietnamese pork sausage).

The soldier in the left foreground is placing bánh chưng cakes wrapped in banana leaves into a pot. On the right are bundles of brown giò thủ, tightly wrapped and pressed by wooden sticks to drain the liquid after boiling and allowing for longer storage. Soldiers in the background are chopping meat and cooking ham.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 13 February 1972, Trường Sơn mountains in western Quảng Trị Province. Watercolour on machine-made paper.

Tết was prepared meticulously by northern soldiers in an effort to mentally prepare themselves for the up-coming Easter Offensive, largely regarded as the offensive that would finally win them the war against America and South Vietnam. The Easter Offensive was the largest offensive operation up to that point of the war and was intended to inflict maximum damage on the southern ARVN forces and capture as much territory as possible to strengthen the North’s position before signing the Paris Peace Accords. According to interviews with Thọ, this artwork (fig. 2) depicted preparations to celebrate Tết before the campaign to capture Quảng Trị City during the Easter Offensive. Despite the harsh conditions, celebrating Tết was important for morale.

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