THE ADVENTURES OF ZIPPO AND FRENCHIE

THE RETURN TO LOC NINH
November, 1999


As told from Yves Michel Dumond's viewpoint


A Canadian TV film company was to highlight the Battle of Loc Ninh after 27 years, through my personal experience of having been there as a photographer and, later, a prisoner of the VC following the battle. So we decided to contact people who took part in the battle.

I found a VC Colonel who was in charge of a tank unit in Loc Ninh. We also found a former VC photographer and we decided that "Zippo" (Major Mark Smith, U.S. Army, Retired) should be part of this film since he was the ranking US officer in charge of the battle. So I invited Zippo to join us at Loc Ninh.

To film in Vietnam, we had to go through the official channel with official accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affaires in Hanoi. We gave them our schedule and an outline of what we wanted to do for our film. We decided not to mention Zippo in our official request and I spoke to him about this matter. We thought that if we mentioned his name, it would slow the process because Hanoi would do more searches because of Zippo's rather notorious background.

When we arrived at the Saigon airport, we were welcomed by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affaires and we told them that in Loc Ninh we would be met by my friend Mark Smith. At that stage, it looked that it was not a big deal. Zippo was there, at the airport as well, since he flew in from Bangkok, and we flew in from Phnom Penh. So at that point we introduced him to our "minder" - (the assigned agent from the Ministry of Foreign Affaires who would be our constant companion while we were in Viet Nam.)

We went to the hotel after deciding to leave for Loc Ninh on Monday. The plan was that the film crew should go to Loc Ninh without Zippo because we had to pick up the Colonel and some guys from the People's Committee of Binh Long Province. We picked up a lady and one male and we proceeded on to Loc Ninh.

We met Zippo at the local restaurant and introduce him to the members of the People's Committee. We then had to go through the official Welcoming Ceremonies with various people from Loc Ninh and especially with the director of Loc Ninh war museum. During this Welcoming Ceremony, we told that we wished to include Mark Smith in our film. The lady from the People's Committee said that Mark Smith was not on the official list of the film crew, but since Mark Smith had a tourist visa he can walk in the streets of Loc Ninh and, "by pure luck, meet his old friend Yves Michel Dumond on the street." For us , it was a good move from "the Lady."

First, we decide to have lunch. During the lunch, we found that "the Lady" had booked some hotel rooms for us at An Loc, which is one hour's drive from Loc Ninh. Zippo told us that some rooms were available at the local (Loc Ninh) hotel. We went there and the hotel owner confirmed that he had rooms available for us, so we decided to take them and told "the Lady" that we had changed her plans - We had decided to stay over night at Loc Ninh. She went to see the hotel owner and complained that her room didn't have air conditioning. Zippo proposed to her that she could take his room and he would take a room without air conditioning.

Then, after lunch, we decided to start filming and we went to the former air strip of the 9 Regiment base. At that stage something changed in "the Lady's" mind and she decide that we could not speak to Zippo and he should go back to Saigon that afternoon. So we went to see him and told him the bad news and we offered him some money in case he didn't have enough to get back to Saigon. He told me that we must do what they said - otherwise they would stop us from filming.

At this point, we tried to speak to "the Lady" and to our Hanoi Minder (the one who had been waiting for us at the airport). He replied that we must do whatever the lady told us . We start to become mad and started to give her a lecture about freedom, etc. We told her that Loc Ninh was a great victory for them in 1972, but in 1999, it was going to be a great defeat for Vietnam. Our major problem was, if we started to be nasty to them, they would simply stop the filming. So we decided to calm ourselves a little.

At around 5:30 PM, light was not good enough to continue filming and we stopped for the day. We told the driver to head to the Loc Ninh hotel. When we arrived, we met Zippo, who was having beer with the local people. The owner of the hotel went out when he saw us. "The Lady" was next to our van, and I could see her with her finger on the front of her face making the sign NO to the hotel owner when the producer went to check in. We became very angry with her and told her that we would decide for ourselves where we would sleep. But we then understood the owner of the hotel got some kind of orders and he was not able to give us any rooms. She decided that Zippo could stay over night in this hotel and we had to drive to An Loc to the hotel where she decided to put us. I'm sure she must have received something from the owner of the An Loc hotel.

The next day, we left An Loc by 6.00 AM and went back to Loc Ninh where we started to film again. At this stage, we understood that Zippo had some troubles during the night and as we were filming at the museum, we told the journalist in our crew to try to find out about Zippo. The main problem for us was that the journalist must try to leave us quietly and secretly - "The Lady" should not see him leaving us. We managed to make some diversion and when she realized that Jean Francois was not there any more, she was mad. She asked me where he was, and I just replied that he went to buy some water. She told me that he should not go by himself because it might be dangerous for him.

At lunchtime, we went back to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet Jean Francois (the Journalist). However, he was not there and I asked our Minder where he was. He told me that he was waiting for us at the other restaurant. At the same time, a girl was talking to him in Vietnamese and I understood the word "police". I asked him what was happening with the police. He was very surprised that I understood a bit of the conversation and he was obliged to tell me the truth: The journalist went to the police station because he heard that Zippo had been taken there.

As soon we arrived at the police station, we saw Jean Francois. He told us that they took Zippo to the police station in the morning and he was told that Zippo went back to Saigon. So, we returned to the restaurant and, as soon we parked the van, I saw Zippo on the back of a motorcycle going towards the hotel. I took my camera underneath my arm and rush with Jean Francois to meet him. I had already switched my camera on and I was recording.

We asked Zippo what happen. He told us that he had to leave for Saigon because they did not want him in Loc Ninh any more. We checked if he had enough money to pay the taxi for the return trip. The driver of the motorbike was afraid I was filming and he always put himself between Zippo and me, to avoid me filming. I told him I was not filming... (but we got everything recorded). We started to speak more with Zippo and he told us that the police came to pick the hotel owner up early in the morning and then him later on. He stayed about 4 hours at the police station.

Finally, we managed to have lunch with Zippo before he was "deported to Saigon." We were supposed to meet him in the evening at our Saigon hotel. After lunch, we continued filming and, at about 5.00 PM, we left Loc Ninh to go back to Saigon. "The Lady" was in the van and we were to drop her at Binh Xoi, which is about 50 kilometers east of An Loc. On the way, between Loc Ninh and An Loc, I told the diver to stop and I told The Lady," "Now, you have to leave us, I cannot stay one more minute with you. This is my van and I do not want to see you in it any more. Miss, I do not like you, bye-bye." And we left her in the middle of no where.

After that, the Colonel, who was a very good guy, and was still with us, apologized for all of the problems. He said: "Our country is changing and it must change, but in some provinces the change is very slow - too slow - and you just went through an example of slow changes in peoples' minds. I am very sorry."

The next day we were able to carry on our filming with Zippo. We were interviewed together, in the Continental Garden, at the terrace of the Rex hotel in Saigon. I think it could have been a very nice sequence having the Colonel, Zippo and myself talking together where the battle of Loc Ninh actually took place 27 years ago. But the mind of a communist lady prevented us from doing that. As I told her, "I hope the mind of your country will change faster than yours."


Copyright 1999, by Yves Michel Dumond

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