War on paper: North Vietnam's artistic legacy

Independence Day posters on Hanoi's streets.
A new art tour in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) traces the work of combat artists in Vietnam’s modern wars.

[This is a transcript of a World Report for RTE Ireland, broadcast 2 September 2012. To listen, click here: http://www.rte.ie/news/player.html?worldreport#programme=World%20Report]

We’re familiar with the pictures taken by foreign news photographers stationed in the south of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, most famously the iconic ‘Napalm Girl’ photo of a nine-year old child, her clothes burnt from her body, as she flees her bombed village.

But at the same time, the Communist north of Vietnam was cut off from most of the world, its supplies coming from Russia and China, and such luxuries as cameras and film were hard to come by. Instead, artists sketched the days of Vietnam’s involvement in two Indochina wars, from 1954 to 1975. They depicted frontline combat and developed information posters that became Vietnam’s propaganda posters, in a Soviet style that is still used today.

The second of September is not only Vietnam's National Independence Day, it is also the 43rd anniversary of the death of Communist leader and Vietnam’s first president, Ho Chi Minh, in 1969, so the country is spattered with its flag – a yellow star on a red background – and banners and posters celebrate both events.

Sophie Hughes explains a propaganda poster, Saigon
Art guide Sophie Hughes takes me through Saigon’s galleries, explaining the posters’ history, and their ancestry, and Vietnam’s transition from colonialism to independence. The simplistically styled posters began as an information campaign from communist North Vietnam’s battalion of artists, to inform a largely uneducated population about the perils of Vietnam’s enemy.

They documented the girl soldiers of the so-called ‘Long-Haired Army’, the fall of Saigon in 1973, and the harsh life on the jungle tracks of the Ho Chi Minh trail that traversed the country, from north to south.

As we walk past the charcoal sketches and watercolours that document two Indochina wars, Sophie recounts how artists resorted to making paint from gun oil and crushed stone, used berries and leaves to create their colours, and how the metal flare cases from the US Army became impromptu carriers for their artwork, much of which was hidden in friends’ coffins for the journey back from the front lines to the cities, where it was copied and distributed among a suffering population.

As the wars dragged on, sketches of the front lines morphed into propaganda, and it’s not subtle: in one poster, bloodied bombs fall onto a sleeping baby with the question, “Is this Nixon's target?” Much is aimed at raising national pride with such slogans as “What the ancestors started, the children will continue.”
In the propaganda poster shops on Saigon’s streets, you can pick up an historic print from as little as 6 American dollars.

A Saigon resident leans on a 2012 Independence
Day poster while he texts.
There are plenty of posters of the South American guerilla leader, Che Guevara, and a whole wall devoted to Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is lovingly, and respectfully called. In every school in the country, there is a portrait of Ho, and every morning the schoolchildren pay their respects.  And on Independence Day, when the country’s Uncle is revered even more than in daily life, it’s clear a picture can speak a thousand words.

For World Report, this is Belinda Jackson in Saigon.

Sophie's Art Tour, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: costs from 950,000VND/A$43 a person (four or more people), includes  air conditioned transport, entrance fees and refreshments. All tours are given by art guide Sophie Hughes in English, sophiesarttour.com

Getting there: Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), costs from $1180 return, vietnamairlines.com

Staying there: The five-star Caravelle is the grande dame of Saigon's hotel scene, and will be relaunching a new look over the coming year. Costs from VND660,000++/A$299 deluxe room/night (84-8) 3823 4999 caravellehotel.com Newest kid on the blog, the four-star Novotel Saigon Centre, has an opening deal which includes free wi-fi and 10 per cent off spa treatments until October 30. Costs from USD$100++ superior room/ night. +84 (0)8 3822 4866, novotel.com.

Photos: Belle Jackson

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