John McCain’s former Vietnamese jailor says he always respected the late senator

The Vietnamese man who ran the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, where the late Sen. John McCain was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years, paid respect to the former U.S. Navy pilot who later was instrumental in bringing the wartime foes together.

“At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance,” former Col. Tran Trong Duyet, told Vietnam News on Sunday. “When I learnt about his death (Sunday), I feel very sad. I would like to send condolences to his family. I think it’s the same feeling for all Vietnamese people as he has greatly contributed to the development of Vietnam-U.S. relations.”

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, center, is escorted by Lt. Cmdr. Jay Coupe Jr., to Hanoi, Vietnam's Gia Lam Airport, after McCain was released from captivity.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, center, is escorted by Lt. Cmdr. Jay Coupe Jr., to Hanoi, Vietnam's Gia Lam Airport, after McCain was released from captivity. (AP Photo/Horst Faas, File)

McCain, who was taken prisoner after his Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, died of brain cancer on Saturday at age 81 in his home state of Arizona.

Duyet, who said he was “very fond” of McCain during his service as a U.S. senator, was among the scores of people in the former communist country paying respects to McCain.

At the monument by Truc Bach lake, where McCain landed after parachuting from his damaged plane, dozens paid their respects, leaving flowers and tokens.

Robert Gibb, an American living in Hanoi, visited the monument in the Vietnamese capital, telling the Daily Sabah that he felt “compelled to come out here and bring some flowers.”

“He was the last guy I ever voted for president,” he added. “The moment he dropped in here change by life forever.”

A woman pays respect at the monument of the late U.S. Senator John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A woman pays respect at the monument of the late U.S. Senator John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP)

The country’s foreign minister said McCain was a “symbol of his generation” who helped “heal the wounds of war.”

Pham Binh Minh wrote in a condolence book at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi: “For both the government of Vietnam and its people, Senator McCain was a symbol of his generation of senators, and of the veterans of the Vietnam War. It was he who took the lead in significantly healing the wounds of war, and normalizing and promoting the comprehensive Vietnam-U.S. partnership.”

Speaking to reporters after writing in a book of condolences, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said McCain was "a great leader and real hero" who helped normalize relations between the former enemies.

"He was a warrior, he was also a peacemaker and of course he fought and suffered during the Vietnam War, but then later as a senator, he was one of the leaders who helped bring our countries back together and helped the United States and Vietnam normalize our relationship and now become partners and friends," Kritenbrink said.

McCain and then-Sen. John Kerry played important roles in the normalization of bilateral relations in 1995.

Pham Gia Minh, a 62-year-old businessman who signed the condolence book at the embassy, said he witnessed Vietnamese civilians being killed by the U.S. bombings of North Vietnam, including the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, but he admired McCain for overcoming the difficult past to build better ties between the two countries.

"War is losses and suffering," he told the AP. "But the will of a brave nation is to go beyond that to look to the future. The Vietnamese people have that will and Mr. John McCain has that will. ... We both have that will to overcome the painful past, overcome the misunderstanding to together build a brighter future."

Pham Van Khanh, a 62-year-old retiree, lays flowers at the monument of Senator John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pham Van Khanh, a 62-year-old retiree, lays flowers at the monument of Senator John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP)

Hoang Thi Hang, a Hanoi resident who also signed the condolence book, said he had great respect for McCain's compassion. "He had compassion for everyone, whether they were rich or poor, whatever their background. And that is important in life."

The U.S. Embassy announced it will launch a McCain/Kerry Fellowship in which a young Vietnamese leader committed to public service will be chosen each year to travel to the U.S. on a study tour to deepen ties between the two peoples.

McCain will be buried on a grassy hill at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, right next longtime friend Chuck Larson, himself an admiral and ally throughout McCain’s remarkable life.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.