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Revisiting the Hanoi Hilton

John McCain and two colleagues make small talk as they tour his former prison.

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.