As a schoolboy in Saigon, Quoc Anh Hoang had never heard of what he called “the legend” of John McCain.
Many years later, after he fled his homeland, Hoang decided to study more about a war that he had always heard narrated by one side.
In class, “they didn’t focus on the two sides fighting each other. They just focused on the winning side,” Hoang said. “So I had to depend on the internet.”
Now resettled in Westminster, the 35-year-old hotel housekeeper said he pores over countless stories he finds on the Arizona senator, whose death Aug. 25 inspired an outpouring of grief in Vietnamese communities, including in Orange County — the capital for Vietnamese Americans.
“Mr. McCain is a central character for my education,” Hoang said. “This is the man jailed by the Communists for five years, the most famous POW. He endured so much, sacrificed so much, yet he never changed his strong spirit. He ended up doing so much not just for Americans — but for the Vietnamese too.”
In the week since his death, flags all over Orange County’s Little Saigon have flown at half-mast for the two-time presidential candidate. They celebrated McCain for fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and for championing political detainees.
Some residents took out ads in Vietnamese-language newspapers to express their condolences. On Facebook, they shared their thoughts on McCain. About 200 even traveled in two chartered buses to Phoenix, the Arizona capital, to catch a glimpse of his casket lying in state.
They stood in the blistering sun for an hour and a half for a chance to view and salute the flag-draped coffin that McCain’s wife, Cindy, earlier had tearfully pressed her face against.
The Vietnamese immigrants wore yellow T-shirts with three red stripes, honoring the South Vietnamese flag, and splashed with the words, “We salute our hero Senator John McCain.” Among them, Dat Quang Le, of Santa Ana, said “it didn’t matter the length of the line. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this generous man who has never forgotten our people.”
He cited how McCain, in the early 2000s, lobbied for an amendment that became law, allowing unmarried, adult children of political detainees to come to the U.S.
“So many families that might have been separated were able to stay together because of Mr. McCain,” said Le, 82, a South Vietnamese army veteran imprisoned for 11 years at the end of the war in 1975. “Very few people understand the Vietnamese experience the way he did and very few showed courage like him."
Most other legislators “don’t know as much about … the character of the Vietnamese people the way Mr. McCain did,” said Khuong The Dang, a leader of the Vietnamese community in Arizona. The pharmacist recalled how he and others found great comfort in “always knowing we could depend on him for help when the Vietnamese regime tried to show their power to oppress the people, violating their human rights and basic freedom. Now, who will we call when that happens? Who will be our voice in Washington?"
Dang, 40, who opened his home to host a fundraiser for McCain during his 2016 Senate reelection campaign, remembered how easily McCain mixed with the crowd.
“Those like me ... and those older than me, we know his legacy,” he said. “The young generation does not but they should. He is a person of moral strength. He is more than someone who ran for president.”
For some young immigrants, the name McCain is still associated with a presidential hopeful who refused to apologize for his use of the term “gook” — his oft-repeated name for his North Vietnamese captors during his more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
“When my friends and I Googled John McCain, this is partly what came up — slurs,” said Emily Ho, a graphics artist from Los Angeles. “It’s one episode, but it can be hard to move past it.”
Still, Ho, 26, said her parents attended Mass in Fountain Valley to request prayers for the family that McCain, a Naval aviator and father of seven, left behind. They even rescheduled summer plans and stayed home so they could follow on TV every leg of McCain’s final journey from Arizona to Washington, where he will be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery on Sunday.
“His desire to dedicate himself to service — that has always stood out in my mind. He is a patriot, somebody that embodied service to all mankind, not just someone from his culture or his country,” said Kim Ha Ly, a retired social worker from suburban Virginia.
On Friday, wearing black and the traditional ao dai dress, she and her husband drove to the U.S. Capitol to pay their respects in front of McCain’s casket.
“When you think of a person and his love for his nation, few people come close to Mr. McCain. His life is truly a lesson in living,” said Ly, 69.
At the Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster, a sprinkling of veterans gathered in silence last week in tribute to one of their own, the scion of a military dynasty. Activist Thanh Kim Bui, 60, said even if McCain angered her by pushing to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam during the Clinton presidency, “we cannot deny his influence and the lasting impacts he created through his work” with former political prisoners in Vietnam. “He truly cared for their well-being,” she said.
Near her, math instructor Son Nguyen, 35, filed past the gleaming bronze statues of an American serviceman and his Vietnamese counterpart.
“I avoid engaging with older Vietnamese about politics since it can be challenging. We don’t think alike,” Nguyen said. “They may be Republicans while I see things differently. But when it comes to John McCain, many people can agree that he is heroic.