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Looking Back at Graham Greene's Saigon

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is a must-read if one seeks to get a better picture of what Saigon was like in 50s or if you just enjoy a good novel (or both!). Saigoneer historian, Tim Doling recently reflected on Green’s bestseller and revisited some of the more significant landmarks in the book, some of which still exist today, on his blog, Historic Vietnam.

Greene’s 1955 novel is focused on the experiences of the protagonist, Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering the First Indochina War.

While the book’s storyline is fictional, it centers on real events during Saigon’s turbulent war years and many scenes take place in some of the city’s most iconic buildings. Here’s are some of the locations Tim details in his piece:

164 Đồng Khởi - 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. It currently houses the offices of the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

213 Đồng Khởi - Once one of the most prestigious addresses in the city. During the late colonial era, 213 rue Catinat was home to diplomatic missions, international corporations, property companies, popular French magazines and beauty institutes. It is currently earmarked for demolition.

Continental Hotel - By the early 1950s its central location made it popular with many foreign correspondents including 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.

Givral Café - 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. 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.

Grand 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.

Majestic Hotel - 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.

First United States Embassy - Pyle’s place of work, the “American Legation” – better known as thefirst United States Embassy at 39 Hàm Nghi. 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)

Đa Kao Bridge – Depicted 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.

Head over to the original article on Historic Vietnam for full descriptions and images of these and other locations. 

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