Q: Many painters of the same generation as you have created and exhibited many different types of paintings. Why do you still display sketch paintings from the Vietnamese battlefield?
A: Someone said I was crazy as I only pursued the “paintings of memories”. I just laughed away. Twenty-one exhibitions is not enough for me and I will continue. I consider it to be an unfulfilled mission. There are still over one million people alive who fought and served on the trail and I have to continue to “tell” stories to pay my respect to them. My exhibitions attracted a large number of my comrades-in-arms, friends, youth volunteers, fire workers and soldiers. Many of them cried as they saw the “old sights and people”. They are valuable archives that I created following ten years of the mission on the battlefield. I want the young generation to know more about this trail as well as understand their ancestors’ sacrifices so that they can appreciate the value of peace and do positive things.
Q: How does Truong Son Trail stand in your memories in addition to what has been shown in the paintings that have been introduced to the public?
A: The atmosphere of opening, repairing and protecting the route as well as shipping goods to the southern battlefield via the Truong Son Trail was extremely vibrant and urgent although life and death were only narrowly separated during that time. Painters like me revelled in capturing the scenes of the soldiers’ trucks still rushing forward to the south despite the fallen and destroyed key points, rocks and trees. Meanwhile, the base stations were always fiercely attacked by the enemy. The actual image was really woeful and majestic. Once I opened an exhibition on the battlefield, my paintings were pinned to tree trunks. Our soldiers watched and wondered why the paintings featured the right shapes of a section of A letter and Phu La Nhich pass but the scenes were not the same as a few weeks ago. I had to explain that the enemy’s bombs had made trees and soil change colour, so only the shapes of roads and mountains remained. I also met and drew a 60-year-old man, who was blinded in both eyes due to the enemy’s tortures but tried to carry a 60kg basket of bullets. His grandson held one end of a stick to take the old man to follow the fire workers to hand over the bullets to the soldiers.
Q: Did artists like you face many difficulties on the harsh and dangerous road full of bombs?
A: In that situation, we could not make paintings with canvases. Only sketches with iron pens, pencils and watercolours on paper were suitable for quick propaganda. To be more precise, sketches attempted to vividly reflect the battles, roads and key points so that they helped me timely hold small exhibitions right on the battlefield or at the rear. Later, I repainted large paintings with modern materials based on the sketches.
There were also three other painters who were very passionate about this topic. We tried to work beyond our ability. We drew in the bomb craters and painted while the sounds of guns and bombs beside us. From the previous generation, Co Tan, Lang Chau and Le Lam were talented painters with many exhibitions held in the north since 1965. Their sketches were published in volumes and released widely both in the country and abroad to let the world know more about the war for national liberation in Vietnam.
Our paintings of the battlefield and the legendary Truong Son Trail truly reflected the historical reality as well as recreating the resilience and heroic spirit of Vietnamese army and people during the sacred resistance war.
An interchange on Truong Son Trail (Oil painting, 2014)
For me, they are my memories
Q: With the specific characteristics of the mission at that time, not any painter who wanted to paint Truong Son Trail would be assigned the task. How did you stick to the trail?
A: I loved painting when I was very young. In 1965, when the US sent troops to the south of Vietnam, young people like me energetically joined in the army. I became a soldier of Infantry Regiment No.5 that was assigned the task of opening the Truong Son Trail in western Thua Thien – Hue. Experiencing many difficulties and hardships, I was deeply moved and wanted to do something to encourage my comrades-in-arms. I drew the first paintings on military civil engineering soldiers who dug a secret road on the Truong Son Trail. During the time for rest or at night, I tied the paintings to the trees so that they could watch. I painted with the wish that my paintings would help younger generations see the fierceness of Vietnamese army and people’s fight against US imperialism.
Witnessing my engrossment on the road and capturing the things I observed on my paintings, the Political Bureau (under the Command of Division 559) allowed me to specialise in the people and the events during the resistance war in order to serve the goal of communication. At that time, I drew completely instinctively with the spirit of a soldier and deep patriotism. In 1968, I was assigned to paint at the soldier stations, transportation areas and routes. Since then, my steps have been imprinted on many routes on Truong Son Trail under a rain of bombs and storm of bullets. I tried to paint with all my soul.
Q: As I know, you were present at the moment when Vietnamese soldiers entered Independence Palace. Do you still remember the atmosphere of this historic day?
A: On April 30, 1975, I followed the gang of ordnance trucks of the Transportation Division 57 under the Truong Son Command to enter Saigon. The gang stopped in front of the Independence Palace. At this time, I had not seen the national flag hoisted on the roof of the Palace. I immediately asked two other people to stretch a large paper and I drew. When my painting was almost finished, the flag flew. I still keep it now.
Q: Several American veterans wanted to buy your sketches but you did not sell them. Why?
A: I could not sell to them because they are my memories that would not be able to be returned. After my exhibition “Memory of Truong Son” ended in Nam Dinh Province on December 24, I donated two valuable works titled “Tha Me focus during the dry season in 1968” and “The key eyes” to the provincial Museum because many veterans in the locality, including many of my gratious comrades-in-arms, worked on the Truong Son Trail.
Q: In addition to the Truong Son Trail, have you created paintings about other topics?
A: In 1973, I was sent to study at the Vietnam Fine Arts University and then returned to the battlefield a few months later.
After 1975, I worked for the Museum of the General Department of Logistics and spent much time repainting sketches I created in the battlefield while creating paintings of rigs, landscapes and families. I participated in just two exhibitions of landscapes and then realised that I was more suited to topics related to soldiers. Thus, I only displayed the sketches of Truong Son.
Thank you very much for your interview!
The Height 550 was destroyed. (Watercolour painting, 1972).