On the 26th of May, in this fortieth anniversary year of the end of the war, I had the privilege of attending a rather singular art opening at the Vinh Moc tunnel complex in the Vinh Linh district of Quang Tri province, the district on the northern side of the 17th parallel that divided Vietnam from 1954 to 1975.

The exhibition “Sublimation” by Hue-based artist Vo Xuan Huy was sponsored by the Quang Tri Department of Culture, Sport, and Tourism in partnership with the Danish embassy. It was the first art project of its kind in Quang Tri, and the first time this part of the complex had been open to the public. Lighting created for the temporary exhibition will remain after it closes, making this tunnel section permanently available to visitors. Hundreds gathered for the event, including teachers, students, and colleagues of the artist; many local families; a robust press corps; and my modest delegation of five students from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, a friend and war veteran who teaches at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and myself. We seven were perhaps the first Americans to ever enter this particular chamber and its access tunnels.

During the war, 114 tunnels dug into clay housed villagers and served the Vinh Linh area’s militia and the military for anti-aircraft, defensive operations as well as artillery and infantry strikes across the border against the US Marine bases at Con Thien and Doc Mieu. With openings overlooking the beach, the Vinh Moc tunnels provided coastal defense. It’s now a National Monument and tourist destination.

Local high school girls, each wearing an earth-brown ao dai with sky-blue trim, led the way into the exhibit through entrance number five. The young women and many other visitors carried balloons. Trapped in our single file on the way down to the third level, we had no way out but by following bodies lurching forward or if need be turning the entire streaming assembly around to go back the way we came. The cool underground temperatures and the oxygen levels changed as we crowded the tunnel. This gave us a meager hint of the conditions for the families and soldiers who had lived here. I’ve read that the complex held some five hundred living quarters.

“Sublimation” occupied an underground meeting chamber in the complex’s third and deepest level. Seven back-lit photographic tiles installed like a path on the chamber’s floor captured bright skies, two with kites. The number seven relates to the lotus flower, the Buddha’s first footsteps, and correspondingly to the Buddhist journey to moral and spiritual ascension. Twenty other back-lit photographic images sampling Vinh Linh’s above-ground plant and flower life lined the chamber walls.

For Vo Xuan Huy, bringing sky and lush vegetation underground represented the undiminished dreams and hopes of the inhabitants. It acknowledged their wartime lives and spirits as well as the final achievement of those dreams. The exhibition sought to revitalize the area’s history, to make it new and alive. Indeed Huy’s audience included Vietnamese youth like the young women who led us into the tunnels. He wanted to demonstrate that their local story can inspire art and that they don’t need to forget the war to achieve progress.

Having followed a file that strayed from the program’s proper route out of the “Sublimation” room, I emerged—sweaty, clay-stained, and relieved—from the wrong exit and missed by several minutes the opening’s finale: a release of two thousand balloons from the entrance closest to the welcome center. The number of balloons in this symbolic rebirth signified the days the people spent constructing and occupying the complex. According to Huy, sixty children were born in the district’s tunnels, nineteen of them in Vinh Moc. (They would be my generation, as that day was my forty-eighth birthday. And the deathday of ninety-one US military personnel, with four in Quang Tri, lost lives that were very much on my mind).

As three of my students described the release, more of a tumbling out than a coasting heavenward, I was astonished to see a Vietnamese woman with a collage of black and white wartime photographs printed on her ao dai. She graciously paused for me to take a photo before proceeding down the steps to the entrance, where she and two others in similar prints posed among the balloons.

As I later learned, Huy’s project inspired designer Viet Bao to create twenty ao dai patterns. Some involved a blue sky with clouds, others combined clouds with doves or balloons. On a few brightly colored ones a typical Vinh Linh village, like those destroyed during the war, filled the entire tunic.

Primarily known for his conceptual and materiel experimentations in traditional Vietnamese lacquer art, with pieces in Hanoi’s National Museum of Fine Arts, Vo Xuan Huy in recent years has expanded his aesthetics to site-specific installations, collaborations, and the war as subject. Huy is the very rare Vietnamese artist who can secure governmental permission for creative public art. The Vinh Moc exhibition has earned Huy a certificate of merit from the leadership of Quang Tri.

Huy spent his childhood in wartime Vinh Linh. He and his mother have told me about the family’s being buried in tunnels after a bombing and rescued by other villagers. After the war, he sometimes discovered unfamiliar tunnels. Playing with unexploded ordnance, he tells me, killed one of his boyhood friends and blinded another. “Sublimation” engaged a sensitive subject, the war, with originality and pluck. It was at once a broadly collective and a deeply personal moment.

Its title tells us a great deal. Huy cites Sigmund Freud whenever he discusses the project. For Freud, sublimation involves the productive redirection of sexual energies by devoting oneself to public service or in creating art. Opening day of Huy’s “Sublimation” enacted this process. It is springtime. From a chamber deep inside the earth, a chamber now deposited with blueprint images of fecund life and of the heavens, the balloons spill out through a suggestively shaped aperture. Moving through the tunnels, one couldn’t escape other reminders—there is the life-size diorama of a woman giving birth in a hospital alcove, and another one of a mother reading to her children. Many Vietnamese press notices of the opening quote Huy on the number of babies born in the tunnels. Their English translations also use terms like “birthing” and “hatching” to describe the balloon release.

Then, of course, there are the pretty young women in ao dai. One is both attracted to them and held at a distance by the war images contouring their bodies. Like Huy’s “Sublimation” itself, these ao dai patterns redirect us. Desire gets no purchase as the quizzical becomes the contemplative.

Vo Xuan Huy has asked his country to think about the war. But “Sublimation” takes us beyond simple glorification, patriotism, or victimization.  While it acknowledged modern Vietnam’s birth through the dark passages of war, the exhibit’s message was no old men’s stale preaching. The presence that day of so many youth amid thousands of balloons and the colorful ao dai decorated with doves, balloons, and villages offered a different kind of hope—they were part of the artwork. “Sublimation” modeled a new relationship with the war, one that is not forgetful, or celebratory, or morose. Instead, it asked that visitors incorporate the war. It is embodied in them, in us, and yet while we must respect that legacy, our bodies, for the short time we have them, deserve to live with a certain insouciance. One could argue, and I think Vo Xuan Huy’s art argues, that this was the very gift intended by those who sacrificed themselves.

 

Author’s Note: The artist Võ Xuân Huy died on March 15, 2016, ten months after his site-specific, temporary “Sublimation” installation. His death inspired this reflection on art and connection.

Dallas—DC—Quảng Trị

Vietnamese celebrate death anniversaries. Family, friends, and neighbors feast, drink, and laugh.

Saturday the twenty-fourth of May, represented another anniversary. That afternoon, across the Potomac River as I flew overhead out of the national airport, a number of my West Point classmates marked the twenty-five years since our graduation with a gathering at Arlington, where they honored the Unknown Soldier as well as our own dead buried there.

Earlier that morning I had hurried breakfast to walk around the corner and then the length of the Mall, passing museums, carousel, joggers, sculptures, monument and memorial and reflecting pool, turning right at the base of the Lincoln Memorial to pass the POW-MIA kiosk (not yet opened for the day) to the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a large poster mailing tube in one hand, a bag of supplies in the other.

East side of the crease, Panel 20E, lines 109 to 127, almost to the very ground. I had to squat, a posture of ease for Vietnamese bodies but outrageous for tall American ones like mine. Ninety-one names. I secured the large grey sheet at the corners and along the edges with blue painter’s tape. I lightly indicated the first letter of the first name and the last letter of the last, and began to rub.

 

A number of kids on field trips that day. Others. People paused to watch. A man with an arsenal of cameras slung about him used a couple of them to record my effort. Eventually a volunteer monitor-docent—a fellow veteran, I supposed—stopped me, informing me that large rubbings weren’t permitted. That the tape could damage the memorial.

I’d been at my task a good while. He didn’t stop me until I had debossed all the names and was going back over the lighter ones. He had waited, I believe, until I had all but finished. I’d been at my task a good while. A fellow veteran, I supposed.

The forty-seventh anniversary of their death-day was two days away. Memorial Day to boot. And of my forty-seventh birthday, in a Dallas hospital.

 

The special chalk had come from an art supply store in Little Rock. The paper came from West Point, from Fort Stewart, from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq. Cadet summer whites and pieces of forest and desert pattern battle dress uniforms—camouflage fatigues—reduced to cotton-polyester pulp, dried into sheets, with the assistance of my friends at the Combat Paper Project, and pressed thin with an art studio’s etching press.

 

Some of the Americans killed in Vietnam on the twenty-sixth of May, 1967, died in Quảng Trị, the province divided along with the nation by the 17th parallel’s approximate tracking of the Bến Hải River. The border area saw significant fighting that month.

I’ve seen their deaths several times, I’ve watched them happen. Close enough, anyway. You can too. In May 1967, the revolutionary Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens managed to be on the north side of the river filming village life in Vinh Linh to give the West another perspective on the war and the enemy. The resulting curiosity, Le 17e parallèle, combines anti-war propaganda and cinematic ethnography. We see a village no longer there. We see bomb craters turned into fish ponds. We see people working the land and digging tunnels for survival, tunnels today’s tourists can visit at Vịnh Mốc by the sea. We see burning homes; we see a captured pilot. We see a defensive militia; we see an offensive military. There, on the screen, the American bases of Con Thien and Doc Mieu are targets on Vietnamese maps. Coordinates are relayed, howitzers are fired, and there, on the screen, American bases receive the fire.

Maybe not exactly on the twenty-sixth. Close enough, anyway.

 

Looking south from the Sông Bến Hải and across the river plain today it’s easy to see the high ground of Con Thien and Doc Mieu, at the time denuded and muddy, now covered in new greenery, in rubber trees that populate the ridge all the way west to Trường Sơn National Cemetery beside Ho Chin Minh’s Trail.  Looking south from the Bến Hải, or looking north from the high ground, it’s easy to impose on the plain the image of that photograph of its blooming in bomb craters.

 

Võ Xuân Huy was born in May 1970, in Quang Tri, somewhere around Vinh Linh and Vinh Moc. In a tunnel. Is his older brother one of the babies in a makeshift crib, swinging, in the underground nursery in Ivens’ film? He and his siblings spent much of their first years down there. The war ended, he went to art school, and eventually became prominent for his experimental abstract lacquer paintings. On one trip to the area, at his parents’ home in Vinh Linh, I presented him several sheets of paper made from the uniforms of American soldiers by the Combat Paper Project. He was surprised and grateful, and promised to incorporate them into his work. He might have used the English word “propitious,” as he had recently begun exploring the war and his wartime childhood in his art.

A year and some months later he invited me to join him in April 2015 for the anniversary of the liberation and fall of Saigon. A birthday, a death day. I couldn’t make it until May, when several students and I joined him for the opening day of his latest installation art at the Vịnh Mốc tunnels. Called “Sublimation,” and also known as “Down to Earth to Meet Heaven,” the piece featured backlit photographs of greenery and sky in a chamber that had not previously been open to the public. My students and I were probably the first non-Vietnamese to ever set foot in that area of the tunnels.

Hundreds showed up for the opening. A procession of young women wearing áo dài and carrying balloons led the crowd single-file into the tunnels, to the exhibit. Once in, there was no going back. With so many people the air stifled the breath and drew out the sweat. After leaving the exhibit chamber, my line took a wrong turn. No more lighted path. Cell phones became instant flashlights. We couldn’t turn around—the single file extended all the way back. I won’t deny the minor panic I felt. We went forward on faith, eventually finding our way out, emerging from the tunnel into light and fresh air. It was my forty-eighth birthday; those ninety-one American soldiers’ forty-eighth death-day. And who knows how many Vietnamese’s.

 

Võ Xuân Huy did not join us for the celebratory seaside lunch afterward. He was exhausted from preparations and from tending to his mother and to their family as her health had begun to fail.

Within ten months, his mother and he both died, she from old age, he from an undisclosed illness he had been living with for some time. I understood a little more why he had missed the lunch in his honor.

We did not speak the same language, but we were friends. Brothers, even, born of the same moment in our nations’ shared history.

 

I don’t know what Huy did with the paper I had given him. He had spoken of introducing it to a class he was scheduled to teach, in Indonesia, I think. Maybe the Philippines.

It’s out there then, somewhere, anonymous material transformed by anonymous hands into something lovely, into many lovely somethings, I’m sure.

Alex Vernon

Alex Vernon is the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of English at Hendrix College, where he has taught American literature and writing since 2001. His Persian Gulf War memoir The Eyes of Orion (Kent State UP, 1999) won an Army Historic Foundation Distinguished Book Award. His most recent book, Reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Kent State UP, 2024), has been called “beautifully researched” and “indispensable” by fellow Hemingway scholars. The forthcoming Peace is a Shy Thing: The Life and Art of Tim O’Brien (St. Martin’s Press, 2025) received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2020-2021). In Little Rock, Arkansas, Vernon led a two-year $100,000 NEH “Dialogue on the Experience of War” program. alex-vernon.squarespace.com

Share This