HANOI (Reuters) - In the prison everyone calls the “Hanoi Hilton”, artifacts in glass cabinets and black-and-white photographs on the walls recall the historic link between Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Vietnam.
Vietnamese are mostly reticent about their views on U.S. politics, but they know the story very well of U.S. Navy pilot John McCain’s plane being shot down in 1967 over Hanoi and how he was dragged out of a lake to spend 5-½ years as a prisoner of war.
The Hoa Lo prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the Americans, is now a museum and was visited by Senator McCain in 2000. Most of the complex was torn down a few years ago to make way for an apartment and office tower complex.
McCain and other veterans such as Democratic Senator John Kerry were instrumental in helping the U.S. government establish diplomatic relations in 1995 with their former enemies, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War.
“He conducted activities that had a positive impact on bringing the two nations closer,” said retired Colonel Nguyen Van Phuong, 81, who headed a Vietnamese delegation in 1973 that negotiated with the U.S. on the repatriation of American prisoners of war, including McCain.
“That is a point that Vietnamese people who follow current affairs do recognize,” the graying, uniformed Phuong said in an interview in his modest house along a narrow lane in Hanoi.
McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination, U.S. media projected on Tuesday, capturing enough support nationwide to be the party’s candidate in the November election.
At the prison whose entrance still bears the words “Maison Centrale” from the 1899-1954 period it was used by French colonial rulers to imprison Vietnamese independence fighters, tourists pull up regularly in buses to walk around.
The flight suit and other gear worn by McCain when he was shot down on October 26, 1967 is propped up in a glass cabinet with a caption that has recently been updated.
“After returning to his country, John McCain became the Republican Senator from Arizona and he is currently a candidate in the 2008 election,” the caption says.
Exhibits describe the heavy bombing of Hanoi and say the POWs were treated well, but McCain says he was put in solitary confinement, beaten and tortured.
By coincidence, Pete Peterson, another former POW who became the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 1995, visited the prison museum on Sunday with a group of American business executives.
Peterson told Reuters Television that McCain “understands the benefits of having a friend rather than an enemy sitting out in a very sensitive part of the world”.
Without mentioning the U.S. war in Iraq and the inevitable comparisons that have been made, the former envoy said: “It’s just a very sensitive time in America’s history and it will be interesting to see how the election turns out.”
Chuck Searcy, a veteran who has made his home in Vietnam since the mid-1990s, said he hoped if McCain became U.S. President, his ties to the Southeast Asian country would help with wartime legacies.
“Landmines and unexploded ordnance which litter the countryside and which have impeded economic development and recovery, that might be enhanced,” said Searcy, who works on the issue through representing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
“We might get further along the road with the thorny issue of agent orange.”
Studies have shown the compound of dioxin, a component of “agent orange” herbicides sprayed by the United States during the war, is still present in so-called “hot spots” at levels hundreds of times higher than would be accepted elsewhere.
Additional reporting by Nguyen Van Vinh; Editing by Bill Tarrant