The monument is easy to miss, and not only because it’s small. Tourist trails laid out by guidebooks are more likely to lead you to other places in Hanoi: around Hoan Kiem Lake, through the picturesque Old Quarter, or to the Temple of Literature. They’re less likely to lead you to John McCain.
And understandably. The monument, located on the edge of Truc Bach Lake, is like a lot of socialist art — unattractive — and for a foreigner the accompanying Vietnamese inscription requires a translator to understand.* But when you realize that the monument marks the spot where John McCain fell out of the sky on October 26, 1967, you pause.
Standing here, you are aware how much changes with time. Gone are the days when Americans dropped millions of tons of bombs on Vietnam. Gone too are the days when Americans were shot out of the sky, pulled out of a lake, and bayonetted in the foot and crotch before being hauled to prison. Instead, along with scores of other nationalities, they canvass the country with their backpacks and cameras, drinking some of the world’s best coffee as they plan their cruise around Halong Bay, their trek to Mt. Fansipan, or their shopping in Hoi An. Vietnam is a beautiful and fascinatingly energetic country.
I last visited the monument in 2007, when McCain was running for President. His ties to Vietnam were strong, and not only because he was held at Hỏa Lò Prison — the “Hanoi Hilton” — as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. As a U.S. Senator, McCain supported the normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1995. And in 2003, when Congress slapped tariffs on Vietnamese catfish exports to the US — one Congressman said Vietnamese catfish were “probably not even sporting real whiskers” and that they “float around in Third World rivers nibbling on who knows what” — McCain came to the Vietnamese farmers’ defense, saying Congress was wrong to have encouraged Vietnam to open up to free trade only to then punish them when they got good at catfish exports.
Standing at the monument and looking at the lake into which McCain once parachuted unconscious with two broken arms and a broken right leg, one might indeed think places like this are worth visiting, even if they only merit footnotes in most guidebooks. Here one is invited to consider the passage of time, the paradoxes of history, and how easily things could have been different, in McCain’s life and in all of our lives, had we on any given day turned left instead of right, taken a job here rather than there, or asked to sit at this table rather than another.
One might also consider the role of experience in life. I’ve written previously about how particular journeys give us particular experiences, which in turn give new weight to particular things we might say or do. McCain’s landing in this lake precipitated years of experience in hardship, including torture, that would later inform his perspective on events like the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and things like CIA-operated black sites. It also would inform how others listened to what he had to say.
* * *
Not far from the McCain monument you can find a bench. And if the bench is occupied it is not far to a seat at the nearest cafe. Here, looking over the lake and perhaps sipping a coffee, you could jot down some thoughts if you wanted to, maybe even the draft of a “final letter” you’d like others to read upon your death. And how good it would be if you could genuinely include in your own a part of McCain’s final letter, released after his death on August 25, 2018:
I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.
Rest in Peace, Senator McCain.
*A translation: “Here on 26 October 1967 at Truc Bach Lake in the capital city of Hanoi John Sidney McCain was shot out of the sky in his A4 aircraft by local citizens militia defending Yen Phu. There were 10 other planes shot down on the same day.”
I’ve not read any of John McCain’s several books, but here are three I’ve read about Vietnam and recommend: