By Alison Bate
The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.
It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.
He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.
Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.
Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.