After volunteering to join the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in 1965, Trương Hiếu was sent to South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In his early days as a PAVN soldier, Hiếu’s main role was in logistics, building roads and bridges for the following combat units. Constantly on the move and often in enemy territory, Hiếu did not re-connect with his family until after the war in 1975.
In 1968, during the Tết offensive, Hiếu was based in Củ Chi to the northwest of Saigon, where PAVN and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces ran their operations from a network of underground tunnels. In one of his simplest yet most impactful artworks, US Bell Iroquois UH1D “Huey” helicopters fly overhead on a search and destroy mission. Hiếu had to lie disguised in long grass while he sketched a quick portrayal of the helicopters, using just a few strokes of Chinese ink on paper. Although the sketch required speed and simplicity, it conveyed the feeling of the moment by stripping it down to the bare essentials of Hiếu’s experience. He created many artworks during this period, often under difficult and life-threatening conditions.
Towards the end of the war, Hiếu remained heavily involved in PAVN activities in South Vietnam, albeit in more of a role as an artist. In April 1973, Hiếu’s sketches in South Vietnam provide an intimate portrait of guerrilla life.
Together with portraits of guerrilla soldiers based in South Vietnam (fig. 1),
Hiếu had the opportunity to document PAVN units on active duty.
Despite a ceasefire agreement reached between the US and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in January 1973, the release of American POWs soon after and the last American combat troops leaving South Vietnam in March, Hiếu’s sketches reveal the war was far from over. Sketching soldiers manning trenches (fig. 2), units on patrol of the countryside (fig. 3) and radio units concealed in undergrowth (fig. 4) gives an impression of the level of continuing resistance activities.
Another of Hiếu’s sketches details a group of workers making mines (fig. 5). Step- or pedal-mines (đạp lôi) were popular mines made by PAVN troops and NLF guerrillas. These small mines served as booby traps made from empty .50 calibre machine gun shells filled with gunpowder or other explosive powder and scrap metal. The casing was sealed in wax and placed in a bamboo cylinder with a nail in the bottom, which was then buried in the ground. When a person stepped on the wax top, the casing pressed into the nail which then blew scrap metal upwards into the foot. Although đạp lôi mines were rarely fatal, they were extremely effective in slowing advancing US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces given their simplicity.