40 years since Saigon’s fall, napalm attack haunts woman in iconic image
One of them was nine-year-old Phuc who, in a moment captured by photographer Nick Ut, was shown screaming as she ran naked down the road, having stripped off her clothes to rid herself of the poison on her skin. From that moment on she was known as the “napalm girl”. Ho, then 10 years old, ran alongside her cousin. Clothed but barefoot, she was captured on the right-hand side of Ut’s photograph.
The image, for which Ut won a Pulitzer prize, was widely credited with turning the tide of public opinion against the war. Decades later, it lives on as one of the most iconic images of the century. Although her face displays no obvious sign of trauma, so do Ho’s nightmares. “Every time I hear a plane I get scared,” she says.
As she has for thousands of days before, Ho sits patiently in the relentless Trang Bang heat on Thursday, occupying one of the weathered plastic chairs in her dusty roadside cafe, footsteps away from where her pain was immortalised. A framed print of the photograph hangs from a post.
But the day is not completely unremarkable: it is the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and Ut, as he does every time he returns to Vietnam, has come to visit. “They’re like family,” he says.
Forty years ago, on 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the former Saigon, seizing the South Vietnamese capital and capping a humiliating defeat for the US after a misguided decade of war. In chaos, Americans scrambled, abandoning the city. The conflict killed over 3 million North Vietnamese, 250,000 South Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans.
Early on Thursday morning, in a move aimed at beating the tropical midday heat, Vietnam held a massive Liberation Day parade. It celebrated with thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, costumed performers, and card-flipping mosaics for its own dignitaries and representatives of other communist nations. The streets of downtown Ho Chi Minh City around the Reunification Palace have been blocked for days. Civilians watched from home.
Forty years of liberation may have unshackled this country from the US military, but not necessarily American-style capitalism. A conflicted legacy looms over the city. Red banners declare: “Long Live the Glorious Party of Vietnam.”
The US normalised relations in 1995. Now flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle punctuate avenues that boast Prada, Chanel, Kia, Lotte, Honda and Starbucks storefronts and adverts, revealing the welcome extended to investment by former enemies America, South Korea and Japan despite anti-American remarks during the ceremony.
After centuries of war, the Vietnamese psyche looks forward. Half of the country’s population of 90 million was born after the “American war” and an estimated 16,000 Vietnamese currently study in the US. The US is one of the biggest investors in Vietnam. South Korea, enlisted by the Americans to fight for the South Vietnamese, is also a major investor, and Korean culture in the form of K-pop music and soap operas is as welcome as its cash.
While Vietnam has changed hands and governments, Ho, now 56, continues to live and work steps away from the napalm attack that altered the course of her life and of her country.
Her cousin Phuc lives in Toronto, has written a book and raised a family. Phuc’s brother – Phan Thanh Tam, the boy on the left side of the photo – lost an eye in the attack. He died of cancer a few years ago and his widow operates a cafe next door to Ho’s on the first floor of the Phuc family house. Phuc’s home is modernised, funded by donations from around the world. Money from Swedish benefactors provided refrigerators, furniture and a television.
On Thursday, Ut photographed the military splendour of a liberated Vietnam for the Associated Press, the news agency for which he continues to work. The pictures are good, he says, but none will ever compare to the napalm photograph. It lives on for Phuc, for Ho, and his own family.
As a teenager in 1966, Ut followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Vietnamese actor-turned-AP photojournalist Huynh Thanh My, who was killed by the Viet Cong.
“My brother, very good photographer,” Ut says, stepping away from where he shot his most famous photo. “I really love him. Every time he came back from assignments and showed the pictures, people die, the war. He showed his wife, he showed me. He was very angry. He said one day he was going to take a picture that would stop the war. But he never did. When he died, I heard his words in my ear. When I took the picture of Kim Phuc, I told my brother: ‘I have it for you.’”