Revisiting the Hanoi Hilton

HANOI — Senator John McCain returned Wednesday to Hoa Lo Prison, the place known to the American prisoners of war who spent time there as the “Hanoi Hilton.” If the jail where he once sweated out months in solitary confinement still had any emotional power for him, it was not immediately apparent.

McCain kicked off his jaunt to Vietnam Monday with a relaxing night on a luxury cruise ship on Vietnam’s beautiful Ha Long Bay. He later spent his hour at the prison playing tour guide to fellow senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

McCain, Graham and Klobuchar were in Hanoi on the second leg of a tour of Japan, Vietnam and China. McCain took care of the consequential portion of his Hanoi stop Tuesday, delivering a speech at the nation’s Diplomatic Academy in which he called for closer military cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam. On Wednesday, he took Klobuchar and Graham for a brief walk through the prison, one of two where he was held for five years after his fighter plane was shot down during a bombing run in 1967. Today, the former Hoa Lo Prison is a museum.

“This block we called Thunderbird,” McCain told Klobuchar, pointing to a section of a scale model of the prison as it had been in 1970. “At one time they took me to a cell way over there, so I was separate from everyone else for five or six months. We used to call it Calcutta, it was very small, about six feet by three feet. It was very hot.”

“Would you eat in the cell, or ... ?” Klobuchar asked sympathetically.

“Pardon me?” McCain asked.

“Where did you eat? In the cell?” Klobuchar repeated.

“Yeah, they would bring a bowl of soup around,” McCain said.

Hoa Lo is a thick quadrant of brick and stone in colonial French style that once covered an entire city block. Most was razed in the early 1990s to make way for a high-rise apartment and shopping center complex. The museum housed in the remaining section is divided between patriotic exhibits denouncing the barbaric treatment meted out here by French authorities to Vietnamese Communist political prisoners in the 1910s-1940s, and contrasting exhibits on the supposedly lenient treatment of American POWs by the Vietnamese.

The trip to the Hoa Lo Prison museum seemed to highlight the continuing gaps in understanding between the U.S. and Vietnam. The museum’s staff were overjoyed to show their famous visitor around. A young guide named Hien, wearing a pink floral ao dai (the sweeping Vietnamese silk women’s suit), led McCain from room to room, reciting rote introductions to each exhibit. McCain nodded graciously, but in most of the rooms, the conversation among the senators inevitably turned to sardonic jabs at the propagandistic displays. At one point, Graham stopped in front of a photo which purported to show American POWs raising chickens.

“Y’all raised chickens!” Graham called to McCain. “That’s pretty good. I didn’t know you were a chicken farmer. You still raise chickens?”

Nonetheless, the visit did present an opening for improved relations between McCain and Senate Democrats. Democrat Klobuchar began her introductory remarks at the joint press conference Tuesday by praising McCain effusively: “I’m here to tell you that Senator McCain is a hero in our country, and it was an honor today to go to see his monument by the lake where he parachuted down, and to think of that moment that changed his life forever.” McCain leaned back in his chair, grinning hugely. The next day, at the museum, Klobuchar spotted a photo of the 35-year-old McCain on the day the POWs were released in 1973. “Is that you?” she asked. “You’re so handsome!”

A minute later, McCain stopped to take note of a photo showing a Christmas dinner for the POWs, staged for propaganda effect by their captors.

“That was really entertaining,” McCain said. “They took me to one of these, I started yelling and shouting obscenities.”

“And they never invited you back!” said Klobuchar.

Other former POWs have been known to burst into tears when they return to Hoa Lo. Many, McCain included, say they were tortured by Vietnamese camp authorities to coerce them into making propaganda statements against the U.S.’s war effort. But any such emotional outbursts seem to be long in the past for McCain, who has visited Vietnam ten times since his release in 1973. McCain first returned here in 1985, and went on to play a crucial role in normalizing relations between Washington and Hanoi in the early 1990s.

McCain used this trip to push for deepening those relations. In his speech to the Diplomatic Academy, he said closer cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries was in both countries’ interests, noting the harassment last month of a U.S. Navy warship by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, and Vietnam’s territorial disputes with China over two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys. Making the usual American call for greater political liberalization and freedom of expression in Vietnam, he tried to cast such reforms as a competition with Hanoi’s giant northern neighbor. “The world has taken note of signs of political change in China,” McCain said. “By taking steps toward greater political liberalization here, Vietnam has the chance not simply to match these accomplishments but to surpass them.”

McCain also denounced protectionism, which went over well with his Vietnamese audience. The U.S. is Vietnam’s biggest export customer, buying $12 billion in Vietnamese exports in 2008. But the Vietnamese were skeptical of his calls for political reforms, and they did not respond to Graham’s call at a joint press conference Tuesday for a stronger stance against North Korea’s missile program. Vietnam holds a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, but while the U.S. pushed for U.N. sanctions on North Korea in the aftermath of last week’s prohibited missile launch, Vietnam called for a “restrained response.”

After the Hoa Lo visit, McCain posed for photos with the museum directors. A pair of American tourists dashed up to watch.

“Our guide said, ‘John McCain’s here,’ and I’m like, yeah, right, she must have that confused,” said Erin Cronin, 44, of West Hartford, Conn. Cronin is a Republican and a McCain fan. “It’s just overwhelming. I’m just shaking, there aren’t words for it.”

McCain, Klobuchar, and Graham then boarded a bus for the airport, where they flew on to Beijing. In Beijing, McCain met with China’s Defense Minister and the chairman of its National Assembly, and reportedly urged China, too, to support sanctions against North Korea. He was not reported to have mentioned American or Vietnamese concerns about Chinese actions in the South China Sea.