WASHINGTON - Half a century after getting shot down over Vietnam, where he would languish as a prisoner of war for more than five years, John McCain shared images of his painful past Wednesday with an unlikely visitor.
Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong, the party's first general secretary to visit the United States, was accorded a high-profile Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
A day later he made a low-key trip to Capitol Hill to see the lawmaker who perhaps more than any other has guided the rapprochement between Washington and its former foe.
McCain, 78, held closed-door talks with Trong - Vietnam's most powerful policymaker - in the meeting room of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs.
But the former Republican presidential nominee, who alternates between gruff administration critic and avuncular statesman, could not help pulling Trong, whom he met recently in Hanoi, into his personal office for an extraordinary trip down memory lane.
"That was Truc Bach, part of the West Lake," McCain said, tugging gently on Trong's elbow as he showed him photographs of the Hanoi landmark where a Vietnamese mob pulled a wounded McCain from the water on October 26, 1967.
Trong nodded in recognition of the familiar scene, where a statue of McCain now stands.
"That's the peace signing on the (USS) Missouri, in the war with the Japanese. My grandfather is standing in front," McCain said, referring to John S. McCain Sr, a commanding US admiral during World War II.
He also pointed out a photograph of his father, who commanded US Navy operations in the Pacific during the Vietnam War.
"That is at the DMZ (demilitarized zone) at Christmastime when I was in prison," McCain said of the image.
The senator recalled how the USS John McCain, a Seventh Fleet destroyer named after his father and grandfather, paid a port visit to Danang, Vietnam in 2010.
"I think it's symbolic of our relationship," McCain said.
Engrained in America's past
McCain, who was tortured at the hands of his captors, sounded more pragmatic than reflective after Trong's unprecedented visit, noting that the rise of China and its muscle-flexing in the Pacific have spurred an improvement in US-Vietnam ties.
"Long ago when I got involved with the normalisation issue, that was the path towards reconciliation," McCain told AFP.
"And there's no doubt that the Chinese behaviour has certainly accelerated that process of (US-Vietnam) co-operation and improved relationship. There's just no doubt about it."
Trong also met other lawmakers including senior Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy, freshman Republican Senator Cory Gardner and several congressmen.
Ties have improved quickly, particularly since Hanoi and Washington normalised relations in 1995.
But they remain sensitive after a war that left more than one million dead, and amid concerns about Vietnam's rights record.
"They've still got a ways to go on human rights and I continue to raise that issue with them. But they have shown some improvement," McCain said.
Gardner noted how he wants to see relations heal so that the two sides can better balance the needs of a modernizing Asia-Pacific region.
"Whether that's a rising China or economic opportunity I don't think there is such a thing as moving too fast," Gardner said.
And yet Vietnam remains engrained in America's dark past.
Hours after Trong's visit with McCain, lawmakers and US military veterans held a ceremony in the US Capitol marking the anniversary of the start of the Vietnam war.