Zippos: not just war artifacts

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For local Zippo buffs, collecting isn't about grisly combat sentiments.

In the US, the "Vietnam War Zippo" - a metal cigarette lighter inscribed by American GIs with some sad, bitter or sardonic phrase - has become emblematic of the conflict that ended more than 30 years ago.

But here in Vietnam, Zippos are another kind of collectable for a group of enthusiasts that barely ever mention the war when discussing their trade.

A wartime light

With the invasion of US forces into Vietnam in the 1960s came hundreds of thousands of Zippo cigarette lighters. A lighter carried a certain sentimental value for a soldier as it was one of the few personal things that would travel with him through his tour of duty.

Early in the war, American soldiers began engraving their Zippos with pictures and sayings. The most popular picture was a map of Vietnam.

Many would carve the lighters by hand while others would have it done at professional engraving shops.

Expressions of the dark disaffection and estrangement of the troops soon showed through in the words written on their lighters:

"I'm not scared, just lonesome.

"You've never really lived until you've nearly died."

"Why me?"

Bradford Edwards, an American painter and perhaps the foremost collector of Vietnamese

War Zippos, began scooping up the artifacts at Ho Chi Minh City markets in 1990.

He's since turned his collection into numerous works of art, including a Zippo Abacus, a piece in which war lighters are arranged on strings to resemble the ancient Chinese calculator.

Edwards says the lighters' engravings and inscriptions were often works of art in their own right.

In 2007, Edwards worked with author Sherry Buchanan to publish a book on the subject: "Vietnam Zippos."

But Edwards says after sifting through at least 10,000 lighters personally, he's sure there are no more authentic war Zippos in Vietnam.

Street-side sellers still hawk fakes, some of which are even elaborately inlayed with lacquer, oyster shell, silk or silver, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one that was once in the hands of an American soldier here.

But that's not what Vietnamese Zippo aficionados are looking for anyway.

These connoisseurs are not interested in war memorabilia but instead search for other types of antique Zippos while also keeping up to date on all the newest designs.

New Zippos

Two Zippo clubs are registered in Hanoi and HCMC. Their website acts as a forum for discussing the collectables and exchanging experiences.

Two of the most respected Zippo enthusiasts in Vietnam are Hai bat lua (Hai "The Lighter") and Le Trong Tien, both living in Hanoi.

Tien has a collection of 400 Zippos obtained on trips around the world. The collection is divided into sets and topics. He says he has nearly a dozen sets, including the Carmel, James Bond 007 and Windy series. His collection includes several rare lighters and many Zippos that simply can't be found in Vietnam. Tien says he would never sell even a single piece of his prized collection.

Hai bat lua began collecting Zippos at the age of 10 and has passionately done so for over 20 years. In 1996, Hai opened his Hanoi Zippo shop, The gioi bat lua (World of Lighters), which he says contains 90 percent of the authentic Zippos on the Hanoi market.

"Zippo comes out with new models and designs constantly," Hai says.

"The newer it is, the quicker it will sell," he says, adding that Zippo prices are as various as their make and models.

"Each Zippo contains a story. That's why they're famous and expensive, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Collecting Zippos is such a popular hobby now that there are dozens of books explaining the phenomenon, providing information to collectors and investigating the Zippo 'cult'," Hai says.

But he warned that collectors have to be extra cautious of fakes as counterfeit production is rampant in both Vietnam and China. He says some fakes are so well made by experienced artisans that even veteran collectors have trouble distinguishing between fakes and real Zippos.

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