Good Morning, Vietnam

This article first appeared in Parade magazine on January 30,2011.

By Connie Schultz

Nick Ut

Taking stock: Nick Ut shares his work with fans in Hanoi. Photo by Connie Schultz

On my way to Vietnam last fall, I wrestled with one question: Will they hate me?

I was going there to report on the long-term legacy of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide that has had a devastating effect on U.S. veterans, and the Vietnamese. And I’m an American. Two strikes against me, right?

It was dark and muggy when I landed in Hanoi. The first thing I noticed was how many people were smiling at me in the airport.

“You American?” a middle-aged man asked as I waited for my bag. I nodded, and he held out his hand. “Welcome,” he said. “Come again.”

Early the following morning, I met Nick Ut. We were both fellows with the Vietnam Reporting Project and would be teaming up for the next eight days.

Most Americans don’t know Nick by name, but if you lived through the Vietnam War, you know why he matters. On June 8, 1972, he stood in the middle of Route 1 in South Vietnam and aimed his camera at 9-year-old Kim Phuc as she ran toward him, naked and screaming. A napalm bomb had dropped near her home in Trang Bang village.

Click, click, click.

Nick rushed the little girl to a hospital, which saved her life. His photo of her is widely credited with helping to end the war.

Photos: See Nick Ut’s Iconic Photo, Plus More Images From Vietnam

He’s been a staff photographer with AP for 45 years, but he is a rock star in our profession—a nd in Vietnam, where he was born. He became a U.S. citizen in 1984, yet it was clear from our phone conversations that he has never stopped loving the people of his homeland.

I was nervous about working with Nick. I knew that he was only 21 when he photographed Kim Phuc, that he lost two brothers in the war and had been wounded three times. I imagined him hardened beyond his years, and wondering why on earth he was teamed up with chirpy Midwestern me.

Day after day, Nick and I came face-to-face with suffering I’d only seen in pictures. We spent hours in Friendship Village, which the U.S. veteran George Mizo founded for children of Agent Orange. Two days later, we visited a community of women veterans who had been sprayed with the dioxin in the war and came home sick, often sterile, and sometimes insane.

At one point during a meeting with disabled children, I had to walk outside. It was just too much. Minutes later, I felt Nick’s gentle hand on my shoulder. Then he went back in and said something in Vietnamese that made the kids laugh.

By the third evening, Nick was lobbying for an early-morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, near our hotel in Hanoi. Hundreds of Vietnamese gather there to start their day with exercise and meditation.

‘You have to get up early, Connie!” Nick said, his accent punctuating his enthusiasm. “By 6! I want you to meet the women who sing. They will sing to you.”

I looked at him like he was nuts. “There is a lot of happiness here, Connie,” he said. “You will see.”

The next morning, the sky was drizzling and Nick was beaming. He grabbed my sleeve and we raced across the lanes of Hanoi traffic that swerve but never stop.

Almost immediately, I heard them. The women were in their fifties, maybe older. A few held brightly colored umbrellas as they danced and sang in pitch-perfect harmony. After the third song, one of the women smiled and reached for my hands. Then she started to sing.

Back and forth we swayed, two women, worlds apart, in the rain.

I looked over at Nick, who couldn’t stop grinning. “What is she singing?” I said. “What is she saying to me?”

“She is singing that you are friends,” Nick said.

I let go of her hands, and hugged her tight.

About Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Plain Dealer and Creators Syndicate, and is a regular essayist for Parade magazine. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for columns that judges praised for providing “a voice for the underdog and the underprivileged." Also in 2005, Connie won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Commentary and the National Headliner Award for Commentary.

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