Rediscovering Graham Greene’s Saigon
Graham Greene’s classic novel about Vietnam, The Quiet American, is one that many senior travellers will have read, particularly those planning to visit the country.
Set during the last days of French colonial rule in the early 1950s, it’s a powerful portrayal of life and death in Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City was then called.
Greene wrote the novel mainly during extended stays in Saigon, a city he loved. Published in 1955, the story of love, jealousy, spying and murder set against a backdrop of war remains one of his most popular books.
Thomas Fowler, a world-weary British correspondent (a man like Greene himself in many ways) and Alden Pyle, the idealistic but dangerous “quiet American”, both love the same Vietnamese woman, Phuong.
It can only end badly, and as events in their lives unfold, Saigon is rocked by violence against French rule.
Much of the action takes place at locations along Rue Catinat in Saigon’s old quarter. Now known as Dong Khoi Street, it runs for just over 1 km from the Notre Dame Cathedral southeast to the Saigon River.
Ho Chi Minh City has seen huge changes since then, with large new developments rising in the Dong Khoi area in recent years. But a surprising number of the places Greene writes about, or that have connections to the book, are still there.
Stepping back in time
Greene is known to have taken daily walks along Dong Khoi Street. It’s possible to walk the length of the street in his footsteps, finding these places and picturing how the street and the city would have looked in his day.
A good place to start your walking tour is the Notre Dame Cathedral, at the northern end of the street in the heart of old Saigon. Built by the French and opened in the early 1880s, it remains one of the city’s focal points.
In the book, Fowler describes it as “the hideous pink Cathedral”. He visits it after seeing the aftermath of a bloody bomb attack nearby. “Already people were flocking in; it must have been a comfort to them to be able to pray for the dead to the dead.”
It’s true the cathedral is not particularly beautiful but not everyone will share Fowler’s opinion of it. It’s built with red bricks imported from France; its twin spires rise high and its vaulted ceilings are worth seeing if it’s open when you’re there. When I visited it one Christmas Day, it was packed with worshippers: a Christian haven in this Buddhist city.
The 1930s building across the road from the front of the cathedral, at the top of Dong Khoi Street, was the headquarters of the French security police, the Sûreté, in Greene’s time. It’s here that the police inspector, Vigot, questions Fowler, about his suspected involvement in the murder of Pyle. Today the building houses the city’s department of culture and sport.
From here, your walk takes you several blocks down Dong Khoi Street to the Continental Hotel, overlooking Lam Son Square. The hotel and square are central to the book’s action and to Greene’s own life in Saigon.
He stayed or drank regularly at the Continental, a popular hangout for foreign war correspondents throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He stayed in room 214 as a long-term guest while writing The Quiet American.
I stayed in the same room when visiting the city several years ago. It’s a corner room overlooking the square, which was known as Place Garnier in Greene’s time. I stood on the balcony watching life go on in the square below and imagined Greene doing exactly the same more than 50 years earlier, his writer’s eyes missing nothing.
The solid writing desk in the room was probably installed long after Greene’s time but it gave the place a satisfying literary feel.
It is at the hotel’s outside café, looking on to the square, that Fowler meets Pyle for the first time. The outside café no longer exists but the hotel, opened in 1880, retains much of its original colonial architecture despite several renovations. It’s full of character.
In the novel, Garnier Place is the scene of a bloody bomb attack that the plot revolves around. Fowler is nearby when it happens and soon realises that Pyle, an undercover American agent, had a hand in it. (It’s after seeing this carnage that Fowler walks to the cathedral).
Greene based the horrific scene on a real car bomb blast that took place in the area in January 1952.
Next to the Continental is the Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre. Fowler describes cars burning in front of it after the explosion.
The Opera House was built in 1897 in somewhat flashy French colonial style. Two winged angels sit atop the imposing arch over the front, and two pillars in the form of topless women hold up the roof of the entrance portico.
After the French left Vietnam in 1954, the building became the seat of South Vietnam’s lower house of assembly. It was not used again as a theatre until after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975.
Across the square from the Continental is another hotel, the Caravelle. While not featured in the novel - it didn’t open until 1959 – it’s used as a stand-in for the Continental in the 2002 film of the book, which starred Michael Caine as Fowler and Brendan Fraser as Pyle.
The Caravelle has a rooftop bar that affords excellent views across the square and up Dong Khoi Street to the cathedral and beyond.
A couple of blocks further south is 109 Dong Khoi Street, where Greene is reported to have stayed in an apartment for a while. Today it’s the Catina Hotel.
Keep walking and as you approach the end of the street, you’ll reach the old wing of the Grand Hotel, a four-storey colonial building dating back to 1929. In the 1950s it housed rented apartments, and Greene used it as the site of Fowler and Phuong’s apartment, where much of the novel’s action takes place.
Dong Khoi Street ends just one block further down, where it meets the Saigon River. On the corner, overlooking the river, is the Majestic Hotel, a favourite of both Greene and his character Fowler, who often drinks at the rooftop bar.
While out of town on a reporting trip on a hot day, Fowler thinks longingly of “cocktail-time on the roof of the Majestic, with a wind from Saigon river”.
Today the Majestic is considered one of the best of the renovated French colonial hotels in Vietnam and still has a rooftop bar with fine river views.
The river too plays a part in The Quiet American. Pyle’s body is found floating in it after his murder at the end of the book.
Like all big Asian cities, Saigon is growing apace. Little has stood still in the decades since Graham Greene lived and wrote here. But the colonial charm that so attracted him still exists for those who take the time to seek it out.
And if you want to buy a copy of The Quiet American while you’re here, you’ll have no trouble finding a copy. Most bookshops and street book stalls sell it, more than 60 years after its publication.
Header image: Phat Nguyen