Building South Vietnamese Urban Terrain

South Vietnamese Urban Terrain - Page Title
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Submitted by Barrie Lovell ©September 2000


For some time now I have been considering modelling some "urban area" for my Vietnam games. The aim will be to produce some models that will allow me to game some of the street fighting seen in the towns and cities of Vietnam during the Tet, Mini-Tet and Easter '72 battles.

Although I have a number of Vietnamese style buildings from various commercial manufacturers these are mostly of the rural type – huts, hootches and similar, and unsuitable for the typical 1950's – 60's or colonial style buildings found in the towns. I have been looking for suitable commercial buildings but without much success, therefore the only solution seemed to be making my own. This is one aspect of the hobby I particularly enjoy, as I find it far more satisfying to make a unique item of scenery rather than simply buying one "off the shelf". It is also possible to model the scenery for a specific period or location and this can add a lot of period feel or atmosphere to a game. Hopefully this article might inspire some other gamers to have a go at designing and building their own model scenery.

View from the front of the completed model The completed model seen from the back
Front and rear view of the completed model

I spent some time examining photographs in some of my reference books, and it seemed that in order to capture the SE Asian "feel" I would have to go for some of the colonial style buildings. Many of the buildings in the photographs were beautiful houses, the Vietnamese having a great love of gardens and elegant white walled houses, however I was looking more for a "commercial area" with shops etc. Finally I found a few photos from Hue and Saigon, which looked like what I wanted.

Using several pictures as a basis I sketched out a composite building, comprising a row of four shops, with small gardens/yards to the rear. As I have discovered over the years that war damaged buildings are more difficult to make than undamaged ones I thought that I would model these as undamaged and leave the wrecked buildings for another day, and when I have a bit more time to spare.

The basic shell of the model was constructed from 5mm foamboard, with extra detail added using various thickness of card, bits from the spares box and some items from various model railway accessories. The model was painted using a mixture of artists and Humbrol acrylic paints and acrylic inks.

Side view of the completed model showing some of the Vietnamese signs Close up view of the signs - note how faded and weathered they look
Views of the building showing some of the Vietnamese signs

A word of caution regarding foamboard. The foamboard itself consists of a layer of polystyrene foam sandwiched between two sheets of thin card and is readily available from most artists' suppliers (it costs £4-£5 per sheet but each sheet is quite large and will last quite a while). It is lightweight, but once suitably glued and braced, very strong and can be used to build quite large constructions (I used it successfully to build a 15mm model of the Grain Elevator at Stalingrad which is almost 24" long and 18" high – but that's another story! [How about the Citadel at Hue Barrie? - Mike R]). However, unless your cutting tools are very sharp the foamboard will tear or rip. Always use a fresh scalpel or craft knife blade and replace it at the first sign of it losing its edge. Also, be careful of the glue you use. Most glues which contain solvents will dissolve or attack the foam. I would recommend a water based PVA glue, which will give a good solid bond and can be used as a wash to seal the foam core.

The model itself was constructed in the following sequence:

  • The model was sketched out and the dimensions calculated.
  • A piece of thick card (3-4mm) was cut to the correct size for the base. The base was cut in a rectangle just large enough to accept the model. This was to allow future models to placed next to it to build up streets and city blocks without having any awkward shapes to get in the way.

  • The walls were drawn onto the sheet of foam board and the positions of all doors, windows etc carefully drawn on. The roofs were drawn on a sheet of thick card.

  • The doors and windows were cut out using a scalpel and then the various walls and roofs were cut from the sheet. A quick test fit was made on the card base to ensure that all the walls, etc fitted. Once I was sure that it would all fit together I glued the walls to the base using a PVA glue (splosh it on all over to ensure a good seal and a strong joint).

  • Once the basic walls were dry I cut sheets of thin card and glued them inside the buildings to cover the open doors and windows.

  • The next step was to start detailing the model. Using the photos as a reference I added various mouldings and embossed bits and pieces using various thickness of card and plastic rod etc. As before PVA glue was used throughout. Doorsteps and window sills etc were added from thin card.

  • The balconies were made from OO/HO model railway fencing, cut to size and held in place with superglue. Once dry they were given a coat of PVA to bond them to the card.

  • The door security grilles were cut from a sheet of fine aluminium mesh (sold in car accessory shops for bodywork repairs – cheap and very useful. It can be cut with a pair of snips or old scissors).

  • Doors and window shutters were cut from card, embossed plasticard or else found in the bits box. The windows in the doors were added using OO/HO etched brass windows from the model railway scenery. The drain pipes were either proper drainpipes from the railway accessories or else made from round sprues from the bits box.

  • The pavements and paving slabs/paths were cut from thin card and glued onto the base.
  • Once the detailing was complete and the glue dry I made up some Polyfilla interior plaster (or Spackle, as I believe it is known to our US readers) with a 50:50 water and PVA mix. The Polyfilla mix was the consistency of a thick cream and, using an old brush I brushed it over the model. The plaster mixture blends the various bits of card and other materials together, softening the edges and making it look more as if it was built rather than stuck together. The plaster also gives a nice realistic plaster texture and painting surface, while the PVA glue gives strength and prevents it chipping. Leave to dry for 24 hours.

  • While the main part of the building was drying I cut out the roofs. As I wanted to be able to place model soldiers inside the building I decided that the roofs would lift off rather than being permanently glued on. Balsa wood blocks, cut to fit snugly inside the building, were cut from a 5mm thick sheet of balsa wood. These were then glued to the underside of the roofs so that when the roofs were placed on the model the balsa block would drop neatly inside the building shell and hold the roof in the correct position. The roofs could be easily lifted off to put troops inside. The roofs were then detailed and given a PVA/Polyfilla wash as described above.

  • Once everything was dry the model was given a black undercoat left to dry.
  • Once dry I began painting. The walls were drybrushed with a mixture of yellow ochre, black and white artists acrylics. I originally mixed a pale grey-yellow ochre colour and then lightened it with white over successive coats. The aim was to produce a whitewashed building which showed signs of age and weathering, rather than a pristine white condition. The final drybrushing coat was a very pale, off-white grey sort of colour. Once dry I used a straight white acrylic paint to highlight the corners, windowsills etc and to touch up any bits that needed it.

  • The pavement and garden paths/yards were given a similar treatment but using more of a grey colour, some of the paving slabs being highlighted in a pale grey.

  • The doors, shutters, drain pipes and other similar bits were painted to contrast with the walls and add a splash of colour. The model was once again set aside to dry. The windows were left black to give some depth.

  • To make the garden areas I brushed the appropriate areas with PVA glue and then sprinkled a sand/fine gravel mixture onto the glue, shaking off any excess. When dry I drybrushed the sand with various shade of yellow ochre artists acrylic, the final coat being almost white. This highlights the sand texture.

Hedges and bushes made from plastic pan scrubber View of interior building space with roof removed

Views of the back of the model showing 'garden' areas, paving and interior spaces

  • The hedges and bushes were made from a green plastic pan scrubber. The panscrub was cut to the approximate size and then pulled and teased apart by hand to produce the irregular bush shapes. The hedges were glued in place Bostick glue as it provides a stronger hold than the PVA and held the bushes to the correct shape while it dried. Once dry I used PVA glue around the bases of the bushes and at the points where they touched the model to strengthen the bond. Once the glue was dry I painting the hedges with a watery black acrylic and ink mix. Once dry I drybrushed them with various shades or green and yellow. The black undercoat gives a feel of depth to the bushes and hides the original plastic green colour.

  • The next step was to add the grass. I dabbed PVA glue in the appropriate places and sprinkled "static grass" over the glue. Leave to settle for a few moments and then shake off the excess. The static grass is available in various model railway scenery ranges – the best stuff seems to be made in Germany. I get mine from Shrewsbury Model Centre, St John's Hill, Shrewsbury. A couple of packets last for ages.

  • The next stage was to add the various signs and posters, to bring the model to life and add some local atmosphere. I found various Vietnamese websites on the internet and copied some of the adverts, buttons and so on. I haven't got a clue what any of them mean but I just picked the ones which looked right for advertising posters, street names, shop signs or whatever (the blue street sign probably translates as "click here to return to home page" or something similar!). To represent the US involvement I found a couple of old Coca Cola advertising signs. I copied all of these onto my PC and pasted them into MS Powerpoint, adjusting the sizes to match my 15mm models where necessary. I wasn't too fussed about the detail or sharpness of the images as long as they looked the part. The images were then printed using a colour inkjet printer before being cut out and glued onto the model using the good old PVA glue. A word of warning – the ink used in my printer was NOT waterproof and some of the ink, particularly the reds and blues started to run as the glue soaked into the paper. Fortunately it did not ruin any of the posters and I was able to leave them as they were.

  • The last bit of detail was to glaze a couple of the windows using thin transparent plastic card. After doing a couple of windows I decided it was too fiddly to do all of them. Note that this is best left to last, or else I can guarantee that you will get paint on the clear plastic.

  • I then left everything for a couple of days and then had another look at the model. By now I was satisfied that I had not missed anything and set the model aside for varnishing (a coat of spray matt varnish to seal and protect the paintwork).

Close-up view of 'Coca-Cola' sign, the badge of the US presence in SE Asia Front view detailing the balcony and metal shutters
Detailed views of the signs and the balcony

I was quite pleased with the result. I think the next project will be to model some of the corrugated iron and wooden shanty towns which seemed to make up the poorer areas of the towns. I guess it is back to the reference books for more inspiration.

Barrie Lovell

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