How Ho Chi Minh has changed since Graham Greene's Saigon

On my first morning in Ho Chi Minh City, I head for the nearest good book shop to buy what is arguably the best fictional guide to a city ever written. Graham Greene's The Quiet American celebrated its 60th birthday in December last year, and 2016 is also the 25th anniversary of the author's death.

I find the bookshop is on Dong Khoi leading down to the Saigon River. During the five years Greene lived here it was known by its French name, Rue Catinat.

Rue Catinat runs through The Quiet American like a spine. Much of the action takes place on the street itself or in buildings close by - the Continental Hotel, the Majestic Hotel, the beautifully ornate Saigon Opera House, the Saigon Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel, and the various apartments where the main characters live.

If you haven't read the novel, it's both a simple triangular love story and an amazingly prophetic, 180-page prediction of how America's entry into the politics of Indochina will end in tragedy.

Fowler, the cynical, flawed narrator, is a British journalist like Greene himself, witnessing the dying years of the French empire. When the novel begins, Fowler is living with Phuong, a beautiful young Vietnamese girl, though he has a devout Catholic wife at home.

Pyle, the "Quiet American", is a naive, idealistic "aid worker" who has been seduced into believing Indochina must be saved from communism by a mysterious "Third Force". Eventually, Phuong leaves Fowler for Pyle.

Greene dedicated The Quiet American to "Dear Rene and Phuong", apologising for "quite shamelessly borrowing" her name for his heroine, and the location of their flat "to house one of my characters" (the building has now been demolished to make way for the Sheraton Saigon).

In the dedication, he also explains he has rearranged historical events: "the big bomb near the Continental preceded and did not follow the bicycle bombs". The Quiet American, he says, is not history but a work of fiction.

There's no official Graham Greene literary tour in Ho Chi Minh City. But step onto Dong Khoi, close your eyes, heighten those senses of smell and hearing, and you're instantly cast back 60 years to the city Greene immortalised.


The obvious place to start is The Continental Hotel, built specifically for westerners in 1880. Greene - foreign correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro, and already one of the most famous English novelists of the 20th Century - preferred the more opulent Majestic, built in 1928. He loved to lounge in the Majestic's interior courtyard, by the swimming pool, protected not only from the insurgents but from less affluent journalists.

But he also wrote part of the novel while a long term guest at the Continental, staying in room 214, a corner room with one window looking out towards the Opera House and another peering along Rue Catinat towards the patisserie, Givral's, much beloved by Phuong in the novel.

During Greene's time in Saigon, the main meeting place for journalists, spies and their informers was the hotel's terrace bar - then nicknamed "the Continental shelf" because it allowed westerners to have a great view of what was happening on the street while being relatively protected from the bomb attacks which feature so prominently in the book.

The hotel's outdoor cafe is where Fowler first meets Pyle on page nine. Sadly, neither the outside cafe nor the terrace bar remains. Greene fans will have to drink one of his preferred cocktails at the upstairs Starrynite Bar instead.

Incidentally, if you don't recognise the Continental in the 2002 movie which saw Michael Caine nominated for an Oscar as Fowler, it's because the filmmakers used the nearby Caravelle as the location. Opening in 1959 after the novel came out, The Caravelle figures prominently in the subsequent history of the Vietnam War - particularly its atmospheric rooftop terrace bar.

Fowler's apartment - where Phuong routinely packs his opium pipes - is just off Rue Catinat, in a building now incorporated into the Grand Hotel. His morning walk took him along Rue Catinat to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame, opposite the imposing post office.

The Palais Cafe, where Fowler used to play his games of quatre vingt-et-un with the French policeman, Vigot, was also a real bar on Rue Catinat, but I couldn't find it.

Certainly the House of 500 Girls, a notoriously real brothel which is the scene of a critical encounter in the novel, has long gone - replaced by a roller skating rink. So, too, the other clubs and restaurants which Fowler frequents.

However if Saigon has changed names since Greene's day, and many of the sites in The Quiet American have been redeveloped, one thing undoubtedly remains the same. The city's women are still as stunning as Phuong.



GETTING THERE: Vietnam Airlines offers daily return flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City. See

STAYING THERE: If you're a hard core Greene fan, you'll opt for the Continental or Majestic. But we stayed at the five star Intercontinental Asiana Saigon (

The writer was a guest of Vietnam Airlines and Aqua Expeditions.