The Photo That Spoke a Thousand Words…and More

Nga Vương-Sandoval
5 min readJul 24, 2016

In my recent visit to Việt Nam, one particular event reminded me of a photo that I saw when I was twelve years old. This photo became synonymous to Việt Nam and the struggle of my people.

From the moment I arrived in Việt Nam, daily temperatures were escalating above 100 degrees. Living in a landlocked state for the majority of my life, the scorching heat is always an adjustment when I visit. Did I mention the heat was combined with over fifty percent humidity? Naturally, riding on a motor scooter was an ideal method to combat the blistering heat.

Sài Gòn traffic.

“Riding on a scooter is the perfect way to embed myself among the locals…”

It was on one of these sun-drenched days that my cousin and I maneuvered through the Sài Gòn streets. Riding on the back of my cousin’s scooter, I mesmerized at the incongruity between traffic pandemonium and the steady buzzing movement of the motor scooters.

The light breeze emitting from the scooters brushed against my face and arms. It felt wonderful. Riding on a scooter is the perfect way to embed myself among the locals allowing me to absorb all the quintessential Việtnamese sights, sounds, scents, and especially the aromas of delectable food.

Thích Quảng Đức Memorial.

We leisurely traveled along the bustling city streets when we approached the intersection of Nguyễn Đình Chiểu and Cách Mạng Tháng streets. I curiously scanned Sài Gòn’s never-ending buildings and storefronts when an enormous bronze statue suddenly caught my eye. It was encompassed by lush green plants with extended branches resembling large bonsai plants. My cousin extended her arm and pointed, “That’s the statue of famous Buddhist monk who set himself on fire.”

The Pulitzer-Prize photo of Thích Quảng Đức.

My thoughts suddenly raced back to when I was twelve years old. It was when I initially saw the famous photo of Thích Quảng Đức. I vividly remember this unforgettable image in my American history textbook adjacent to the section about the Việt Nam War. During that time, Buddhist monks endured immense religious persecution by the Vietnamese government. Years of continuous oppression by the Vietnamese government compelled Thích Quảng Đức to employ extreme measures to call attention to their plight.

On June 11, 1963, he had gasoline poured all over himself and was set on fire. He peacefully sat in meditation while his robe and flesh burned in flames. This iconic image and video footage instantly circulated around the world. Back then as a child, I knew little about him and even less about the significance of this photo.

“I was struck by the magnitude of where I was standing. Wow. It occurred right here.”

Statue of Thích Quảng Đức towering over 20 feet.

We walk toward the memorial and arrive at an extraordinary bronze sculpture of Thích Quảng Đức. I slowly tilt by head back and stared at the twenty foot tall statue of him. He was sitting in the same iconic position as the photograph with eyes firmly closed in meditation. Bronze carved flames draped across his robe and arched high behind his back replicating his final moments. Just behind this statue, his final living moment was captured in an intricate carving on a wall.

I stood quietly at this sacred site. I felt his message of peace and tranquility silently resonating. As I read the inscription of the events that occurred that day, I was struck by the magnitude of where I was standing. Wow. It occurred right here. This was the exact site where Thích Quảng Đức sacrificed himself.

Wall carving depicting the final moments of Thích Quảng Đức.

“I felt proud to be Việtnamese.”

To see his statue in-person as an adult provided me remarkable perspective. It gave me insight into his mindset when this occurred. It allowed me to appreciate the level of tyranny he and other monks suffered. It made me understand the extreme measure that he took to bring attention to their cause. It made me grateful for my religious freedom. I felt proud that someone of my ethnicity committed himself for his countrymen. I felt proud to be Việtnamese. I now understand why this photo earned the Pulitzer. I now understand the gravity of this photo.

As a non-Buddhist, I sensed how he was fraught with desperation causing him to execute this act. In time of crisis, will we be unyielding for what we believe in? Will we sacrifice ourselves to benefit others? Are we willing to forgo our own happiness for the sake of another?

Altruistic acts are easy to overlook although they’re rooted in history and our family’s narratives. Noble acts shouldn’t be overshadowed by today’s loud societal messages of self-gratitude. While we don’t need to take such dramatic approaches as Thích Quảng Đức, we should give thought to others. Perhaps his incredible example will inspire us to act in ways that benefit others instead of just ourselves.

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Nga Vương-Sandoval

Writer📃 TEDx Presenter🔆 Public Speaker🎤 Proud Refugee🌏 Proud Việtnamese 💛 Human Rights Advocate✊Product of My Ancestors🏯