Written July, 2013
I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American when I first arrived in Vietnam, almost four years ago. I was living in a hotel room, didn’t have a job, and was apprehensive about everything going on in my life. I also barely knew anything about Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) at the time, let alone the country of Vietnam, which is much larger and more complex than most people realize. Most importantly, I only had a rudimentary understanding of the history involving the wars that tore Vietnam apart for 30 years, let alone the cultural habits and tendencies of Vietnamese people. I think for all of these reasons, I didn’t particularly enjoy, or understand, The Quiet American.
But 3.5 years later, the book sparkles. Greene lived in Saigon in the early 1950s, covering the French Indochina War for the British press. His novel is partly fiction, partly autobiography; the plot surrounds the murder of an American Legation officer secretly working for the CIA. Published in 1955 (by which time the war with the French was freshly over), it looks scathingly at the American funding of the French war, the secret operations that were happening involving the CIA at the time, and even the American pressmen. It was widely seen as being anti-American when it was published, and did not sell well in the USA, though it did well in Britain. (In 1958 Hollywood released their own version of The Quiet American, which all but stripped the political message that was sent out. Greene was furious).
Many show amazement at Greene’s vision for the future, but in actuality he was just observing what was happening and reporting it through his novel: the U.S. was very much involved in Vietnam by the early 1950s, even as the French suffered the causalities and longed to be over with what had become a nightmare war that was fought in thick jungle against invisible enemies.
In many ways this novel serves as a precursor to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the hard-hitting correspondent’s tale published in 1977 detailing life in Vietnam at the height of the American / Vietnam War in 1968. Herr mentions Pyle’s murder in his book; in my opinion he was definitely inspired by the writing style Greene used to describe things. Both writers are sharp-witted and extremely honest, and at times Herr’s book mirrors Greene’s: there are press conference scenes from each book which are eerily similar. Perhaps this is simply because neither war was very different from the other; the same could probably be said for the press and the military officers talking to the press. But it seems worth mentioning.
It also depicts the horrors of war as well as any novel can; while describing the scene at Phat Diem, war simply becomes death and decay.
On a lighter note, I was somewhat amazed by the way in which this book portrays Saigon. Despite the fact that this book was written in 1955, nearly 60 years ago, the city still feels the same. The dark streets, oppressing heat, the squatting women gossiping, the obnoxious foreigners, the restaurants, the way the girls dress in colorful ao dais: it all feels like I’m reading about current day Saigon. Much the same can be said about Dispatches.
And, of course, beyond all the historical stuff, all the stuff about Saigon, and everything else, lies a touching love story. Numerous themes are touched on that again mirror the political stuff happening: ignorance, hatred, deceit, the question of etiquette vs. character.
It helps to read this book with at least a little bit of an understanding of what was happening in Vietnam in the early 1950s. If you have the time the best book to read is Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, though this book is over 700 pages long. Of course, you could just read the chapter pertaining to French involvement in the war. Without a general knowledge of what was going on, it’s easy to get lost when reading about the Cao Daists, Hoa Haos, the Bich Xuyen, and General The, as well as the Viet Minh. Greene doesn’t try to explain who these people were, because at the time they were groups of people that were well known in Vietnam. This book was written several years before the term Viet Cong was ever used.
There are several The Quiet American reader websites that help out with terminology. Lots of dialogue is printed in French, and the websites translate this stuff. They also help out with outdated stuff we might not know about, like the Kinsey Report (a 1948 book on male sexuality) and pinastres (the currency used in French-controlled Vietnam). What most of the websites didn’t help with were street locations: Saigon under French control had French street names (the city grids for Saigon and Phnom Penh were designed and built by the French). Today lots of French street names remain in Phnom Penh, but in Ho Chi Minh City they are almost entirely gone. The only ones that remain are Pasteur (the scientist), Yersin (another scientist), Calmette (yet another scientist) and Alexadre De Rhodes (the French missionary who transcribed the Chinese lettering of Old Vietnamese to the current system, which uses Roman letters). All other French street names were changed in 1955, when the South Vietnamese government was created. After doing a little research I’ve found most of the street and other locations of the book and have put them here for anyone who lives in Ho Chi Minh City and is interested in reading the book and locating where events are happening.
Rue Catinat: The most important street in the book, where the main character, Fowler, lives. I also believe it is where Graham Greene lived. The Rue Catinat was and still is the most central street in downtown Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. The Opera House and Continental Hotel, both important landmarks at the time of the novel and today, are found on this street. In 1955, when the South Vietnamese government was formed, it was re-named Duong Tu Do, which translates to Freedom Street. In Dispatches, Tu Do Street is equally important to Greene’s Catinat. But in 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army marched into Saigon to end 30 years of war, once again the street name was changed, and it has stayed the same since. Today it is Duong Dong Khoi, translated to mean Uprising Street. Today Dong Khoi still serves as the central pulse of District 1, though it is more commercialized. The Caravelle Hotel, Opera House and Continental are all still there, but so are the Louis Vuitton store, the VinCom Center with its huge electronic murals, and numerous other over-priced shops. Things have changed and things haven’t changed.
Rue Duranton: This is where Pyle lived before he was murdered. As far as I can tell from looking at an old map of French Saigon, it’s either Bui Thi Xuan or Suong Nguyet Anh, parallel to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and perpendicular to CMT8. In District 1.
The Dakow Bridge: This where the pivotal scene, the murder of Pyle, occurs, though we never see it happen. It’s also where another very important scene happens towards the end of the book. The internet tells us that the Dakow Bridge has been ripped down (and presumably re-built), but it doesn’t tell us where. It was most likely located in the Dakow or Dachau area of District 1. In the book Fowler goes to a Burgundian (East German) restaurant right near the bridge to meet Pyle. According to the novel, on the their side of the bridge it safe; on the other side of the bridge the Vietnamese Army control things by day, and the Viet Minh by night. It is described as enemy territory, a place where you would get your throat slit if you crossed at night. The restaurant near the bridge has a metal gate to protect it from grenade attacks. Although it’s tough to figure out where exactly this bridge was located, my guess would be that is at the end of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, where it crosses a newish bridge into Binh Thanh District. This makes sense as it is a little bit off the beaten path, but not too far away (the Zoo and Botanical Gardens are nearby, and the rest of Downtown is only about a five minute drive away). In this case, Binh Thanh District, on the other side of the river, would be the enemy territory controlled by the Viet Minh at night, where Pyle was murdered.
Boulevard Charner: Nguyen Hue
Boulevard Bonner: Le Loi
Avenue Gallieni: Trung Hung Dao
Boulevard de la Somme: Ham Nghi. Boulevard de la Somme plays an interesting part in the novel. It is where Phuong does all her shopping for meats and fruits at the markets. Interestingly, I don’t think there are markets on Ham Nghi today, though there are international food markets (different than Vietnamese markets). It’s also interesting to note that Greene seems to consider this part of town to be part of Cho Lon, aka Chinatown. Today Cho Lon is still a major part of Ho Chi Minh City, and it is still largely Chinese, but it in no way stretches all the way to Ham Nghi, in District 1. Cho Lon today is found in District 5 and 11. District 1 is not considered to be Cho Lon, nor is it considered to be very Chinese. Cho Lon is mentioned throughout the novel, and much of the action happens in the somewhat shady areas of Cho Lon. Again, much can be said of Cho Lon in Dispatches, and in Karnow’s book on Vietnam. During the war years Cho Lon was always known as a somewhat dangerous place that was to be treated cautiously, but it was also a place where French or American servicemen could find plenty of useful things on the black market that they couldn’t get in other places. Anyway, I find it interesting that Greene seems to consider Ham Nghi (Boulevard de la Somme) to be in Cho Lon. Perhaps Chinatown used to be a much bigger part of Saigon. Or perhaps it shifted over the years. Or maybe I misread him. Not sure.
Other street names from French Saigon that weren’t mentioned in the novel, but I find them interesting anyway: Le Duan – Boulevard Norodom; Nam Ky Khoi Nghia – Rue Mac Mahon; Hai Ba Trung – Rue Paul Blanchy; Pasteur – Rue Pellerin; Thi Sach – Rue Pasteur; Nguyen Thi Minh Khai – Rue Chasseloup Laubat; Cach Manh Thang 8 – Rue de Verdun; Vo Van Tan – Rue Testard; Truong Dinh – Rue Miss Cawall; Dinh Thieng Hoang – Boulevard Albert; Nguyen Binh Khiem – Rue Rousseau.