Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets

By Pham Ha* - Mar 15, 2019 | 03:46 PM GMT+7

TheLEADERThe mysteries and legends of wartime North Vietnam before 1975 were depicted graphically through the brushwork, colors and lines of the artist, Pham Luc, a master painter of Vietnamese art.

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets
A painting by Pham Luc.

Pham Luc, one of the most famous artists in Vietnam, is often glorified by art collectors as Picasso of Vietnam as they share many similarities. Vietnamese art contributed to the world with its unique lacquer and silk paintings after the Ecole des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine was established in Hanoi, the capital of Tonkin, Indochine.

The art of Pham Luc depicts the history, culture, heritage, and daily lives of Vietnamese people from the past to the present, from war to peacetime. He can create works of art using a whole range of materials such as canvas, silk, woodcut, and lacquer.

However, Pham Luc's unique brand is his original sketches he made during the resistance war against America, which are drawn on burlap sacks made from jute or woven yarn.

The sketches on paper or burlap bags depict the secret life of the North Vietnamese army as they marched south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, protected by the thick forest canopy of the Truong Son Range. After the Ham Rong battle his work captured the mood and the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets
Sketches were drawn on burlap sacks made from jute or woven yarn.

A painter and soldier, Pham Luc, has experienced plenty of fierce battles, injuries, personal loss, and magnanimous moments and his paintings depict with brutal honesty the hardships experienced by the soldiers in the heat of battle.

After finishing his studies at the Vietnam College of Fine Arts (1960 - 1965), Pham Luc joined the army, retiring in 1999. During his time in the army he took a degree at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, graduating in 1977. He took part in many fierce battles, especially in Ham Rong Bridge in Thanh Hoa province. His haunting sketches about the battles, drawn on paper or burlap sack, are collected by the writer and known as “The Bac Viet or North Vietnam’s secrets during the Vietnam-American War”.

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets 1
A sketch Pham Luc made in 1966.

In the summer of 1999, I visited the artist at his home and studio in Nghi Tam street in Hanoi, where he showed me 10 original sketches on paper from the war which were all were older than me. Over piping hot green tea out of cups delicately painted with West Lake Lotus blossoms, he said that he had just found those sketches and brought them from his hometown Ha Tinh to Hanoi.

He was eager to tell me about his memories of the war, his life experiences, the people he met and portrayed, the beautiful landscapes, marvelous mountain ranges, blue ocean, the love that people found during the war and finally, the comradeship between soldiers and residents.

“I only have a few of these paintings left from the war, a part of our national history, and these precious works should be entrusted to the person who will value them and appreciate their importance. As I adore you, I give them to you so that you will ensure that the memories of my life as an artist-soldier are kept safe”, he told me.

I was born in 1975 when North and South Vietnam had just unified. My generation had no idea about the war, only what we heard from our families.

For me, the memories of the war against America are the unforgettable stories that I heard from my grandparents, parents, and other relatives. They lived and fought in North Vietnam and had a common ambition – “to burn the Truong Son Range to defeat the Americans” and to save the nation and gain national unification.

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets 3
A mother is taking care of her child in front of the altar worshipping her husband who died during the war.

I grew up with my father’s memories and the army stories of my grandfather who fought from Ha Tay province down to the 17th parallel, traveling along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and along the coast of North Vietnam. My mother often told me about the difficulties and tough life she had when people had to share food with the soldiers and be prepared to fight to protect the village whenever needed. The women, left at home, missed their husbands greatly and were grateful when they received letters from them letting them know that they were safe. They were also in constant danger from bombs dropped on the countryside and many died or suffered horrific injuries.

She told me about the classes organized in the trenches, when many students moved from the city to the countryside to avoid the bombing. The women played an important role not only in fighting to protect their houses, villages and the nation, but also in working in the fields and producing provisions, work usually done by the men. They had to do everything as their husbands were away fighting the enemy.

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets 2
A sketch depicting a mother teaching her child under the Vinh Linh tunnel during the war against America.

Despite collecting many of Pham Luc’s paintings, it is his original war sketches that move me the most. The secret lives of the soldiers and depictions of battle in North Vietnam before 1975 are captured perfectly in his brush strokes, colors and shapes, the combination creating masterpieces depicting the heritage of our country during the war.

Pham Luc used a variety of materials for his sketches, such as cardboard, newsprint, and tissue paper, whatever he could find to use as there was a shortage of materials during the war. It was important that he captured the everyday scenes of wartime North Vietnam, the little-known lives of the soldiers and peasants. His quick sketches, done between 1965 and 1975, convey the moment, the heat of battle, the loss, the desire for peace and freedom,

Pham Luc’s style is rustic, simple, open-minded and use a range of colors. Typically, they depict the sadness of a young wife missing her husband and hugging her child, or the tragedy when a young wife looks at the picture of her dead husband as she touches the child in her womb who will never know his father.

Along with the war themes, Pham Luc’s art depicts landscapes, the mountains, motherhood, and the daily routines of soldiers and people in North Vietnam (Bac Viet).

Painter Pham Luc's North Vietnam secrets 3
Artist Pham Luc.

Pham Luc’s paintings present something strong, bold, generous and clearly improvised when he draws Vietnamese soldiers. When drawing, Pham Luc captures the emotion in a simple way, which the viewer can feel deeply.

Around 100 of Pham Luc’s paintings, many from the 1965-75 period, are exhibited on Heritage Cruises. Based on a shared passion, Heritage Cruises connects closely with the artist and this is reflected in the overall style, décor, cuisine, wine, music, art and service on board.

All these things represent Vietnam. The country is rich in terms of its history, culture, nature, heritage, and cuisine. These all combine to create once-in-a-life-time memories for our guests in the natural wonder of Halong Bay, itself a masterpiece.

*The author is founder of Lux Group, a luxury tour and cruise operator.