Meet the trail-blazing female fire eater
My Kim pours a small amount of kerosene into her mouth. Without swallowing it, she stands next to her co-performer on the edge of the stage at Quan Khu 7 Stadium, patiently waiting for her cue to go on.
The lights dim and before the audience can take a breath, a flash of fire breaks out.
In the center is the 22-year-old dancer in a glittery two-piece costume, blowing a plume of fire from her mouth in front of the awed crowd.
As the volume rises, Kim lowers the torch in her hand and begins her fire eating performance. A member of the audience jumps on stage, lighting his cigarette with the flame flickering from Kim’s mouth.
“Some people don’t believe that it’s real fire,” Kim later said backstage. “I let them play with the fire to prove that it is.”
The performer, whose real name is Nguyen Thi Hong Hanh, grew up in Phu Yen Province before moving south to Ho Chi Minh City with her family as a teenager. She used to follow her father and his cai luong folk opera troupe.
"One day I met a fire eater who inspired me and taught me the art,” Kim said.
After her first time on stage at the age of 14, Kim decided to pursue her passion for fire.
Kim prays to the ancestors of the fire dancing arts before shows, a spiritual practice that she believes keeps her safe during performances.
The end of the year is Kim’s busiest time, when she plays at least three shows, typically year-end parties and weddings. “I do my own hair and make-up to save time,” she explained briefly.
On stage: Kim hula-hoops with fire at a restaurant in District 7.
The most difficult part of fire eating is keeping the flame alight in her mouth for as long as possible.
Kim drinks water after a 10-minute performance to cool the heat in her mouth. “I often burn myself during performances, but it heals pretty quickly.” she said. “I can get back on stage just two or three days later.”
The saddest part is sometimes people disrespectfully throw money at Kim and her fellow performers.
“We'd rather have a flower handed to us out of respect and appreciation, rather just a bunch of cash thrown on the floor in front of us,” she said.
Sexual harassment is not rare, especially when she is usually surrounded by drunken men.“There were times when some of them came on stage to touch me or even kiss me as a silly dare,” Kim said. “I hate it and always react strongly.” Standing near her is Ho Van Huan, her assistant, who also acts as an bodyguard.
The two run back and forth between Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong Province, sometimes touring as far as Nha Trang and the Central Highlands.
Kim currently manages a small group of fire eaters, looking after bookings and dealing with event organizers. The troupe’s earnings range from a few to over 10 million Vietnam dong per day.
“Sometimes I want to get tattoos to cover these burns, but then I realize they are all the memories I have from this job,” the young dancer said.
A brief rest in the waiting room.
“The busy schedule keeps me away from home,” Kim said on a day-off at her parent’s house in Binh Duong. “I love to play with my little nephew, talk to my parents and cook for them.” She is the youngest child in her family.
The nephew follows his auntie everywhere.
She fixes her costume. “I don’t know how long I'll be able to fire dance for,” Hanh said. “Most people are over the hill at the age of 30. That’s why I am working as much as I can, with all my passion and energy.”
Photos and story by Thanh Nguyen