Mid-July 1974: Phạm Đỗ Đồng at a Medical Camp in Tây Ninh Province

After his assignment to the southeastern provinces of South Vietnam, Phạm Đỗ Đồng returned to his base in Tây Ninh Province. Đồng lived in the south from 1969 until 1975, mainly based in Tây Ninh Province, without returning to his home in Hanoi. Working for the Liberational Fine Arts  Department of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF), Đồng saw violent action while documenting the lives of the 5, 7 and 9 Divisions based in Tây Ninh Province as a journalist and war artist. A harrowing and confusing time, Đồng remembers his time most clearly while attached to Division 5.

In the charcoal sketch (fig. 1), Đồng rendered the portrait of a nurse in profile. Entitled “Nurse of the Liberation Army”, Đồng described her as a member of the logistics department; she was attending the southeastern congress in Tây Ninh Province.

Figure 1: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 21 July 1974, Tây Ninh, “Y tá của Quân Đội Giải Phóng (A Nurse of the Liberation Army).” Charcoal on machine-made paper.

Nurses like the one above would have worked at one of the make-shift hospitals catering for People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and National Liberation Front (NLF) soldiers (fig. 2). Like in the painting below, hospital buildings and operating rooms were made from basic materials and located in deep forest for cover.

Figure 2: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 11 July 1974. “Quân Y R21. Nhà Mổ; PHONG MO (Military Medical R21. House; OPERATING ROOM).” Watercolour on paper.

In other paintings and sketches (figs. 3 and 4), Đồng’s work gives a sense of how closely he lived with the staff at the hospital complex in Tây Ninh Province.

Figure 3: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 13 July 1974, Tây Ninh Province. “Một Ca Mổ; 13 VII 1974 (An Operation; 13 VII 1974).” Ink and watercolour on paper.
Figure 4: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 17 July 1974. “Operating theatre.” Ink on paper.

While in the painting the surgeons and doctors present in the operating room are clothed in operating scrubs and appear to be in a clean environment (fig. 3) the sketch (fig. 4) adds further details. Although wearing the same scrubs, they are operating under very different conditions. In the top right and top left of the sketch, there are lights, which were described by the artist as bicycle lights.

Đồng also offers other examples of the reality of resistance medical camps. He documented not only operating rooms but a pharmacy (fig. 5). A woman is washing vials, noticeable as the small jars to the left of the water tub. Although assisted with aid from the Soviet Union and China, medicines for PAVN and NLF troops were nearly always in short supply. As such, it was imperative that they manufacture their own medicines. Perhaps Đồng’s interest in the medical camps stemmed from his own experience of contracting malaria numerous times, and his memory of being cured one time by a mysterious medicine which he called “bear liquid”.

Figure 5: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 8 July 1974. Quân Dược Đoàn 220; QGP Miền Đông Nam Bộ; X.70 (220 Pharmaceutical Corps of The South Vietnamese Liberation Army).” Ink and watercolour on paper.

Like the medical facilities, private quarters were also temporary structures fashioned from basic materials (fig. 6).

Figure 6: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 11 July 1974. “Indoor living area of a hut.” Ink and watercolour on paper.

Đồng recalled that, in barracks made from rattan walls and thatched rooves, soldiers often slept in hammocks if a standing bed was not available. Although again made from basic materials found in the forest, furniture was sparse but efficient. Tables and chairs were nearly always self-folding, ready to be packed at a moments notice.

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