April-May 1975: Phạm Thanh Tâm Documents the Fall of Saigon

The Fall of Saigon in April 1975 was the second time legendary war artist Phạm Thanh Tâm saw his country reunited. Having been present for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) victory at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ on 7 May 1954, Tâm arrived into Saigon with elements of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) almost exactly 21 years later. Beyond the fascinating insights we can glean from his experience, it was a proud moment for Tâm.

The Fall of Saigon: “The Last March”

Always the professional, Tâm continued to sketch and record what he saw during this emotional time. In what he described in an inscription as “ready for the last march: onwards to Saigon!” (fig. 1), the sketch depicts the scene of two T-54 tanks gathering in the suburbs of Saigon in preparation for the final journey heading towards the city from the north via Route 1 (still in operation today as National Route 1A). This would have been made before the final attack on Saigon on 30 April 1975. The soldiers were cleaning, preparing the guns and checking inside the tanks while waiting for the order to break out the convoy. Each tank had a unique identification code for organisation purposes; this tank depicted had the code 917.

Fall of Saigon
Figure 1: Phạm Thanh Tâm, April 1975, Suburb of Saigon, “Tiến về Sài Gòn; 4-75; Sẵn sàng, chặng hành quân cuối cùng: Vào Sài Gòn! (Heading to Saigon; 4-75; Ready for the last march: onwards to Saigon!).” Ink on machine-made paper.

According to Tâm, North Vietnam received its T-54 tanks and training from the Soviet Union in preparation for the final military push against American-supplied Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces defending Saigon. PAVN troops began their attack on Saigon from five different directions at the same time. While Tâm came in from the north, other artists such as Nguyễn Thanh Châu joined forces marching from the west.

Surprising Normality

On the day of the Fall of Saigon, 30 April 1975, Tâm painted a scene of striking normality, depicting a busy street corner in Saigon (fig. 2). People moved freely, which proved to Tâm that when Saigon was liberated, normal life would go on as it had done before. Walls were full of commodity advertisements, from toothpaste to skin whitening creams, things that he had never seen before. For Tâm the atmosphere was very different in Saigon compared to his life in Hanoi, which had very commodity advertisements because of the anti-capitalist culture. Tâm also noticed car makes he had never seen before (La Dalat cars), which he found remarkable.

Liberated Saigon
Figure 2: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 30 April 1975, Saigon. “Sài Gòn 4-75; Hygièna; Quang Vien; Solar; Optique médicale Scientifique; 168 Pasteur SG; Mai Hương; Kem Trắng; M… OSPHATE (Saigon 4-75 Hygiena; Quang Vien; Solar; Optical Medical Scientific; 168 Pasteur SG; Mai Huong; Whitening cream M… OSPHATE).” Print and watercolour on machine-made paper.

“As a battle journalist, I needed to record the characteristics of The Victory Day in Saigon, for example, daily activities of Saigon citizens, security maintenance. The city was not destroyed, there was no bathing in blood. Electricity was still on in the evenings so that people could go out and enjoy their night activities.”

Phạm Thanh Tâm describing his observations when entering Saigon on 30 April 1975 in an interview with Witness Collection in June 2017

On streets with recognisable landmarks, Tâm’s sketches are doubly revealing. In a street scene in front of the iconic Rex Hotel (fig. 3), a new banner pronounced: “Hoàn thành sự nghiệp thống nhất nước nhà. Hoan nghênh bộ đội ta giải phóng Sài Gòn” (Complete the reunification of our country. Welcome our troops who have liberated Saigon). The crossroad was crowded with people and vehicles: women wore flared trousers, long traditional dresses and were driving Vespas. Today, in the background of this sketch, are the headquarters of Ho Chi Minh City’s People’s Committee.

Fall of Saigon
Figure 3: Phạm Thanh Tâm, April-May 1975, Saigon, “4-5/75; 18_Trước cửa Hotel Rex; Sài Gòn ngày giải phóng (4-5/75; 18_in front of the door of the Rex Hotel; Saigon in the days after liberation).” Ink on machine made-paper.

Phan Thiết City

Eager to see more of the south, Tâm made a brief trip to Phan Thiết city on 2 May 1975. When Tâm visited Phan Thiết to sketch, the city had just been liberated. As a journalist, it was easy for Tâm to ask for a ride by car. He came to Phan Thiết with no specific intention; he just wanted to visit Phan Thiết after liberation and draw liberated life. The sketch (fig. 4) shows daily life at a road intersection. The art work depicts a trishaw, a three-wheeled taxi, a 7-seat car, people in long traditional dresses, merchants and the style of TV antennas of that time.

Phan Thiết City
Figure 4: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 2 May 1975, “Phan Thiết (Phan Thiết City).” Ink on machine-made paper.

Although seemingly chosen at random, Tâm’s choice to journey to Phan Thiết is an interesting one. As an active soldier during the war with the French, the coastal city of Phan Thiết would have held a considerable amount of meaning for resistance soldiers such as Tâm as the centre of the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng‘s (VNQDĐ, translated as the Vietnamese Nationalist Party) independence movement against the French in southern Vietnam.

On his return to Saigon, Tâm sketched a Night Club in District 1 (fig. 5), near the Rex Hotel, on 5 May 1975. As they must have appeared to him slightly alien, Tâm recorded hotels and clubs that still ran normal activities. The sketch also depicts a typical blue and yellow Saigon taxi of the time.

Fall of Saigon
Figure 5: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 5 May 1975, Saigon, “13_Phố Sài Gòn ngày mới giải phóng (ghi nhanh); Saigon 5-5/75 Câu lạc bộ đêm; khách sạn; xe tắc xi (13_Saigon in first days of liberation (quick record); Saigon 5-5/75; Night Club; Hotel; Taxi).” Ink on machine-made paper.

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