The Saigon locations used by British writer Graham Greene in his acclaimed anti-war novel The Quiet American have long been a favourite topic for travel writers. Here by request is a recap of the most significant landmarks.
During the period March 1952 to June 1955, Graham Greene made four trips to Sài Gòn as a foreign correspondent. While based here, he wrote The Quiet American, a prophetic tale of a naïve young American’s misguided efforts to bring democracy to the Far East.
While he was in Saigon, Greene’s life was focused almost exclusively on the privileged expat world of the city centre, and in particular on rue Catinat (modern Đồng Khởi street), still at that time the epitome of colonial chic.
Greene is known to have taken a daily constitutional up this street, “to where the hideous pink cathedral blocked the way.” The Notre Dame Cathedral end of Đồng Khởi street therefore makes a great starting point for a tour of some of the real-life places Greene used to flesh out The Quiet American.
The large building opposite the Saigon Metropolitan Tower at 164 Đồng Khởi was once the Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté, workplace of Inspector Vigot, the French detective responsible for investigating the death of the title character, American agent Alden Pyle. Although it was set up in around 1917, the current building dates from 1933 when its facilities were expanded. It was known in Vietnamese as Bót Catinat (Catinat Police Station) and during the late colonial era it is said that many political prisoners were tortured in its basement cells. The plaque outside the main entrance commemorates the four weeks after the August Revolution when the Việt Minh flag flew over Bót Catinat. However, following the return of the French in late September 1945, Bót Catinat resumed its original function as the city’s colonial police headquarters. Passing it during his daily constitutional, Greene clearly took a disliking to the building, talking in The Quiet American of its “dreary walls” which “seemed to smell of urine and injustice.” After the departure of the French in 1954, the compound served as the Interior Ministry (Bộ Nội vụ) of South Việt Nam until Reunification in 1975. It currently houses the offices of the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, although since it currently forms part of a redevelopment zone, it is earmarked for demolition.
One block south of the old Sûreté headquarters stands another location featured in The Quiet American – the art-deco-style 213 Đồng Khởi, once one of the most prestigious addresses in the city. After the departure of his girlfriend Phương, anti-hero Thomas Fowler briefly considers finding a new place to live and comes here to view “the pied-a-terre of a rubber planter who was going home.” During the late colonial era, 213 rue Catinat was home to diplomatic missions, international corporations, property companies, popular French magazines and beauty institutes. It was also a centre of French haute couture, with several up-market fashion outlets, including a branch of Galeries Lafayette! However, most of the building was occupied by luxury apartments. One of its best-known former residents was Saigon rubber baroness Madame Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin Rivière de la Souchère, who rented an apartment here from 1932 to 1938 after losing her magnificent estate in the Great Depression. Greene clearly disliked this edifice too, since Fowler refers to it disparagingly as a “so-called modern building (Paris Exhibition 1934?) up at the other end of rue Catinat beyond the Continental Hotel.” It is currently earmarked for demolition. POSTSCRIPT: REGRETTABLY THIS BUILDING WAS DEMOLISHED IN MAY 2014.
Still known in Greene’s day as place Garnier, Lam Sơn square is home to Greene’s favourite hostelry, the Continental Hotel at 132-134 Đồng Khởi.
The history of this venerable old Saigon institution may be traced right back to the late 19th century, but by the early 1950s its central location made it popular with many foreign correspondents, including Lucien Bodard (1914-1998), Jean Lartéguy (1920-2011) and of course Graham Greene himself, who apparently insisted on staying in room 214 on the corner of the building, so that he could get the best view of all the goings-on in the square below.
The ground floor of the hotel once opened straight out onto the sidewalk to form the Continental Terrace, a focus for café culture in the city centre. In The Quiet American, Fowler’s nightly ritual is to start the evening with a 6pm beer at the Terrace, where the dice rattle as the French play Quatre cent vingt-et-un.
Back in 1955, just as Greene was putting the finishing touches to his novel, the Théâtre de Saïgon next door was converted into the Lower House of the South Vietnamese National Assembly and politicians began meeting regularly for drinks at the Continental Terrace. Inevitably the journalists followed, turning it into a centre of gossip and intrigue. Sadly the hotel is now a cocoon of air-conditioned luxury and the few forlorn tables outside on the hotel sidewalk fail to conjure up the atmosphere of the Greene era.
Here’s one for longer-term residents. When Graham Greene arrived in Sài Gòn in 1952, Givral Café had just opened its doors on the corner opposite the hotel, where Đồng Khởi street meets Lam Sơn square.
A much-loved Sài Gòn landmark, it was used by Greene as a model for the “milk bar” in which Phương meets her friends every day at 11.30am. Renovated and used as a location for Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film, Givral continued to function until as recently as 2009, when it was closed to permit the demolition of the entire block and the construction of the Union Square shopping mall.
In The Quiet American, place Garnier/Lam Sơn square is the location where, with tacit support from the Americans, the sinister “Third Force” led by General Thế detonates a car bomb, killing many civilians. Greene based the character of General Thế on real-life warlord General Trình Minh Thế (1922-1955), who began his career in the army of the Cao Đài church, but left in 1951 to form the Liên Minh militia, a private force implicated in a series of bombings between 1951 and 1953.
One block west of Lam Sơn square is the Bùng Binh Sài Gòn traffic circle, where Lê Lợi (formerly boulevard Bonard) meets Nguyễn Huệ (formerly boulevard Charner). The Sài Gòn Tax Trade Centre at 135 Nguyễn Huệ, originally built in 1924 as the up-market Grands Magasins Charner, was Greene’s “big store at the corner of the Boulevard Charner,” outside which Fowler stands to witness one of the citywide detonations of bicycle pump bombs, dubbed “Operation Bicyclette” by its perpetrators. POSTSCRIPT: REGRETTABLY THIS BUILDING WAS CLOSED IN AUGUST 2014 AND IS ALSO NOW AWAITING DEMOLITION TO MAKE WAY FOR A NEW 43-STOREY TOWER BLOCK – see Date with the Wrecker’s Ball (3): Saigon Tax Trade Centre.
Charner/Nguyễn Huệ boulevard briefly appears in The Quiet American as the location of Le Club, a restaurant frequented by members of the Sûreté, where Fowler runs into Vigot two weeks after Pyle’s death. However, since its real-life prototype remains a mystery, it’s more rewarding to head back to Đồng Khởi street, where the lower end of the former rue Catinat is home to a few more relics of the Greene era.
After Phương leaves him for Pyle, Fowler tries to forget her by making regular visits to an opium den he describes as “a good house on rue d’Ormay,” now Mạc Thị Bưởi street, which exits Đồng Khởi street on the left hand side.
Further down the street is another Greene landmark, the Grand Hotel at 8 Đồng Khởi. This building originated in the late 1920s as a café run by the Société du Grand Hôtel de Saigon, but was subsequently leased to Corsican entrepreneur Patrice Luciani, who oversaw the construction of a new 90-room hotel and became its first manager when it opened in 1933 as the Sài Gòn Palace Hotel. By the late 1940s it had been converted into rented apartments, and although Greene himself never stayed here, he is said to have chosen it as the model for Thomas Fowler’s “room over the rue Catinat,” where much of the action in the book takes place.
The final stop on Graham Greene’s rue Catinat is the Majestic Hotel at 1 Đồng Khởi, another of the writer’s favourite haunts, which appears as one of Thomas Fowler’s regular watering holes in The Quiet American. Most evenings, after his 6pm drink at the Continental, Fowler heads down rue Catinat for “cocktail time” at 7pm in the Majestic’s Rooftop Bar, where he can relax and enjoy “the cool wind from the Sài Gòn River.” Though remodelled on several occasions since it first opened in 1925, the Majestic still has that Rooftop Bar with its excellent view of the river, which remains a popular spot for sunset cocktails.
A brisk walk from the Majestic two blocks south along the quayside and then one block west on Hàm Nghi boulevard leads to Pyle’s place of work, the “American Legation” – better known as the first United States Embassy at 39 Hàm Nghi. This yellow building, to which Fowler angrily comes looking for Pyle after Phương’s departure, was the home of the American diplomatic mission from 1950 to 1967. However, following a car bomb attack in 1965, a decision was taken to build a new and more secure embassy compound on Thống Nhất (now Lê Duẩn) boulevard – the compound which in April 1975 would be the scene of the final US withdrawal from Việt Nam.
Although it doesn’t appear in the pages of The Quiet American, Greene himself is known to have made regular visits to the exclusive Cercle Sportif Saïgonnais on rue Chasseloup-Laubat, now the Labour Culture Palace at 55B Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai.
Interestingly, the book mentions that Pyle’s apartment is close to the Cercle Sportif on tree-lined rue Duranton, now Bùi Thị Xuân street.
Chợ Lớn is mentioned on several occasions in The Quiet American, as the location of Mr Chou’s godown, the Chalet restaurant and the Grande Monde where Fowler recalls first meeting Phương while she was working as a “taxi dancer.” The Grande Monde casino, originally known to the French as the “Parc au buffles,” was located on the site of the modern District 5 Cultural Centre.
No tour of Graham Greene’s Sài Gòn would be complete without a visit to Đa Kao (“Dakow”), which the author depicts in The Quiet American as being under constant threat from attack by Việt Minh forces based on the north side of the Thị Nghè canal. Fowler comments to Inspector Vigot that every night, as soon as the police have withdrawn, Đa Kao reverts to being Việt Minh territory. The canal bridge which today connects Nguyễn Văn Giai street in Đa Kao with Bùi Hữu Nghĩa street in Bình Thạnh district is a modern replacement for the original iron road/tramway bridge which Greene calls the “Dakow Bridge.” It is underneath this bridge that Pyle’s body is eventually found, floating face down in muddy water. Right next to the bridge is the fictional Vieux Moulin restaurant, guarded by armed police “with an iron grille to keep out grenades,” where Fowler agrees to meet Pyle, thereby setting him up for assassination. Greene delights by telling us that the patron of the Vieux Moulin “had grown fat on his own rich Burgundian cooking” and that the restaurant “smelt of capons and melting butter in the heavy evening heat.”
One of the most gripping parts of The Quiet American is the chapter which describes Fowler and Pyle’s dangerous night journey back to Sài Gòn after attending a festival at the Cao Đài Holy See in “Tanyin” (Tây Ninh). Modern visitors to Hồ Chí Minh City still follow in their footsteps – albeit rather more safely – to tour the extraordinary Cao Đài Cathedral, situated around 90km northwest of the city and described by Greene as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.” These days the trip is usually made as an adjunct to visiting the famous underground VC tunnel network at Củ Chi.
Sài Gòn has changed a great deal in the six decades since Graham Greene walked its streets and anyone looking for seedy opium dens, exotic taxi dancers and world-weary colons will be sorely disappointed. Yet for those in search of the faded colonial charm which Greene knew and loved, modern Hồ Chí Minh City still has a great deal to offer.
You may also be interested to read these articles:
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Quiet American, 1958 and 2002
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Lover, 1992
Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.
A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.
Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.