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Graham Greene’s Saigon

Graham Greene’s Saigon

Old Saigon


By Andrew Forbes

I deliberately used a quotation from Graham Greene's The Quiet American in the introduction to this book. It's probably the best novel, at least in English, on Vietnam, its politics and its mores in the middle of the 20th century. No Vietnamese city is more closely associated with Greene than Saigon. Yet his chief protagonists – Fowler, and Pyle – travel much further afield, to Hanoi and Haiphong in the north, to Ninh Binh and the cathedral town of Phat Diem in south-central Tonkin, as well as to the Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon. Fowler even takes part in a French dive-bombing operation in the northwest near Lai Chau, while the sound of heavy artillery from a major battle at Hoa Binh can clearly be heard at night from downtown Hanoi. Even legendary Halong Bay gets a mention.

As the former Demilitarized Zone or “DMZ” gets a face-lift for tourism, it seems quite probable that Graham Greene's Vietnam, the land of the legendary “Quiet American”, will follow naturally in turn. After all, it has considerable tourist appeal – the more so since Philip Noyce's recent release (2002) of a new Hollywood production of The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser and Do Thi Hai Yen as the lovely Vietnamese woman torn between the two protagonists. The movie is remarkably (though not entirely) true to the original, and is apparently considered by Caine to be the greatest achievement in his long and distinguished acting career.

A surprising amount of what Greene saw and wrote about has survived (certainly more than in the former DMZ). If the novelist, who died in 1991, could revisit his old haunts today it seems probable he would be surprised not by just how much he would still recognise, but by the excellent state of preservation - and indeed careful restoration – much of the area he knew and loved has received.

The heart of Graham Greene's Saigon is a downtown area running from the west bank of the Saigon River to Notre Dame Cathedral, built in neo-Romanesque style by the French in 1883. Constructed in red brick, with two 40m-high towers, it has no especial architectural merit, but still stands out as the largest church in the city and as a major Saigon landmark. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in front of the cathedral, looking down the busy main street to the Saigon waterfront. This was once the busy and cosmopolitan thoroughfare where Greene liked to take his daily constitutionals, stopping en route for a vermouth cassis as the mood took him. It was, naturally, too, the area he chose to make home for his world-weary anti-hero, the reporter (for the London Times, no less), Thomas Fowler.

In French colonial times this road was known as rue Catinat after the French warship, Catinat, which lead an attack on Da Nang harbour in 1856. By 1862 the Nguyen Emperor Tu Duc had been forced to sign over the southernmost part of Vietnam to France. In 1864 the area was officially designated the French Colony of Cochinchina, with its capital at Saigon – which by the end of the century had acquired a widespread, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated, reputation for cultural sophistication.

Within three decades Saigon had been transformed out of all recognition by the colonial authorities. Visiting in 1893 the Frenchman Pierre Barrelon strolled down rue Catinat, “famous for its splendid boutiques, decorated pubs and unending movement of carriages… The rue Catinat is remarkably animated. It is not the movement characteristic of Chinese streets that one finds in all Far Eastern cities, with this milling of naked torsos, of bare legs, restless, laid about and sleeping. Here the liveliness is entirely European, and I was going to say Parisian; long before me it has been said the Saigon is the Paris of the East”.

By the time Graham Greene came to frequent the rue Catinat, in and around 1952, it had become something of a shadow of its former self, run down by years of shabby Vichy government and brutal Japanese occupation. It had also become the spiritual and cultural centre of French resistance in the south of the country not just against the communist Vietminh, but also to the rival private armies which flourished and fought each other in the nearby Mekong Delta – Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen. It remained sophisticated, if somewhat seedy, however, and retained a definite panache which clearly attracted Greene, a Catholic convert and very much a Frenchman manquée who revelled in the atmosphere.

It's clear that no self-respecting Vietnamese nationalist, of whatever political stripe, would be prepared to accept the humiliating designation “Catinat”, so when the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem took power in southern Vietnam in 1954, the main thoroughfare acquired a new (and perfectly respectable) Vietnamese name, Tu Do, or “Freedom”. For some long years afterwards, however, locals still tended to refer to it as “Catinat”, and this remains its name throughout The Quiet American, which Greene eventually completed writing in 1955.

Throughout the three years he lived in Saigon, Greene made rue Catinat his home. His preferred residence was The Majestic, a magnificent, colonial-style hotel located on the corner of Catinat and the former Quai de Belqique (now Tong Duc Than Avenue). Built in 1925 by a local company, but very much to French architectural design, it was the last word in luxury in contemporary downtown Saigon, offering splendid views across both Catinat and the nearby Saigon River from its fourth-floor rooftop bar. Here, on starlit nights, one could gaze in relative safety across the water to the undeveloped banana plantations and coconut fields of District 2 (reputedly held in the hours of darkness by the Binh Xuyen), or watch tiny sampans and great steamers making their way up river to Saigon port.

Not that Greene always stayed in The Majestic. On occasions he stayed somewhat further up Catinat at a more modest hotel, the Mondial, which still exists at no. 109. Conveniently located between the two is the Grand Hotel, setting for Fowler's rather shabby apartment in The Quiet American. Also on Catinat, at the Palais Café, Fowler is reported to have played quatre cent ving-et-un with his police friend and inquisitor, the Pacale-reading Inspector Vigot. It has been suggested by one of Greene's biographer's, Norman Sherry, that the distinguished author himself may have personally had a Vietnamese or métisse girlfriend here – certainly he had something of a reputation, deservedly or not, as a lady's man.

In 1952 Greene's rue Catinat was the heart of an increasingly run-down, decadent and opium-soaked city. In 1954, though, with its name changed by the dictator Diem, its character began to alter once again. Diem was a Catholic and a puritan who frowned on opium, rowdy nightlife and casual relationships between the sexes – but he was also a man both out of his depth and up against a much tougher and wilier opponent, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.

In 1963 Diem was overthrown in a military coup and killed, while one year later, in 1964, the notorious “Tonkin Gulf Incident” brought the USA formally into the war for the first time. Within a decade almost half a million US troops were based in South Vietnam, and Saigon had become synonymous with bars, drugs and sexual excess. Even so, the “soul brother too big” imagery taken, for example, from Stanley Kubrick's 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket (actually filmed in the London Docklands) probably overstates matters in the conveniently combined interests both of poetic licence and of anti-Americanism.

Just how realistic this image may have been is surprisingly difficult to tell. Certainly by the time the southern regime fell in 1975 and the first NVA tanks burst into the Presidential Palace (subsequently renamed the Reunification Palace) in central Saigon, the south faced a series of serious social problems. The new regime made an effort to roundup “undesirable elements” such as thieves, beggars, drug users and prostitutes, but there was none of the wholesale killing of disaffected individuals conducted so ruthlessly in nearby Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia, or even the mass expulsions to island prisons conducted in easier-going Laos. According to press reports, some trendy young Saigonese were dragged from buses to have their long hair sheared, while in other cases revealing, western-style clothing was ripped off. Government directives were soon issued, however, warning that such revolutionary excesses would in future be seriously punished.

Even so, yet another era had come to Catinat – now renamed Dong Khoi, or “Uprising” – and the lax days of Graham Greene were soon but memories of a fading past. It wasn't so much the closure of the bars and the opium dens that transformed the neighbourhood. Rather government prohibitions issued against free market economics, the banning of private hotels and restaurants, and the imposition of sterile, unworkable, Stalinist economics, not just in Saigon, but across the country as a whole, would contribute to years of bleak socialist austerity. In particular, the relentless persecution of Vietnam's Overseas Chinese community, the Hoa, who for generations had helped drive the commercial engine of Saigon, would cripple Vietnam's economy.

Stanley Karnow, a veteran correspondent of the Second Indochina War and author or Vietnam: A History (1983), remembers Saigon during the 1960s as a city that ‘stunk of decay. Its bars were drug centers, its hotels brothels, its boulevards and squares a sprawling black market… It was a city for sale – obsessed by greed, oblivious to its impending doom'. Yet when he returned in 1981 he found that despite many cosmetic changes, beneath the surface surprisingly little had changed. One of his former haunts, the Hotel Caravelle – long a popular meeting place for foreign journalists – had been renamed the Doc Lap, or “Independence”, just as Tu Do was now Dong Khoi, ‘though everyone still called it Catinat.'

During his visit he met with senior former Southern communists, once supporters of the reunification struggle and of Hanoi, who were now deeply embittered. In an attempt to lighten the atmosphere he remarked that at least the predicted bloodbath following the communist victory had never happened, only to be cynically informed “so instead of dying quickly, we are dying slowly.”

Later during the same visit Karnow interviewed a senior communist official at the splendid gingerbread Hotel de Ville, now the “People's Committee Building” just off Dong Khoi. He was reassured that the socialist transformation of the south was proceeding to eradicate prostitution, hooliganism, consumerism and other poisons left over from the dark ages of American capitalist influence. “That same evening… three whores accosted me just outside my hotel with a ferocity unlike anything I had witnessed during the American era. They were nineteen or twenty and they tugged at my sleeves with aggressive desperation, whispering obscenities in a mixture of pidgin English and fractured French.”

At this stage not just the Dong Khoi area, but the city as a whole was a squalid, impoverished metropolis filled with undernourished, unemployed hustlers and beggars, while party “fat cats” (often from the north) enjoyed standards of living far above anything the locals could aspire to. Corruption was rife, and Vietnam was well on the way to becoming one of the poorest countries in the world. And yet things were not quite as bleak as they seemed. Karnow commented: “I have seen socialist principles transgressed by capitalist practices in Moscow, Warsaw, East Berlin and other Communist cities, but never so fragrantly as in Ho Chi Minh City… Its avenues and alleys teem with stalls offering everything from American cigarettes and Scotch whiskey to French perfume, German cameras and a cornucopia of other products.” In other words, the commercial vibrancy of Saigon was still alive beneath the surface, just waiting for the stultifying hand of state socialism to be lifted.

By 1986, when Communist Party leader Le Duan died, the Vietnamese economy was on the verge of collapse. Inflation was out of control at nearly 700 per cent a year. The Vietnamese currency was all but worthless, and there was virtually nothing for sale in the state stores. Fortunately Le Duan was replaced by the reform-minded Nguyen Van Linh, and a new policy known as doi moi or “change and newness” was introduced, ushering in a gradual return to free market economics.

Of course things didn't change overnight. When I first visited Saigon the city was still terribly run down, many people visibly malnourished, and the central Dong Khoi area was a squalid mess. Ten years on, the change is unbelievable. The beggars and piles of human excrement have disappeared from the streets, fine old colonial buildings have been restored, new parks created and there is a palpable feeling of wealth and upward social mobility amongst the population. In particular Catinat, Tu Do, or Dong Khoi – call it what you will – has become a fashionable area of bookstores, cafes, clothing shops, art boutiques, first class hotels and international restaurants. Not at all the street that Greene knew and loved so well, but indeed something rather superior.

This posed something of a problem for filming the new, 2002 version of The Quiet American. The magnificently restored Majestic Hotel was perfectly suited, indeed in better shape (no doubt) than it had been in Greene's day. But there was no way that Fowler's shared apartment with Phuong could be located in the nearby, almost as elegant, Grand Hotel. Fortunately the famous old Continental Hotel, favoured by Fowler for his morning tea, had also been restored, as was the fine old Saigon Opera House on Lam Son Square (Greene's Place Garnier) and the nearby colonial-style glass-and-wrought-iron Central Post Office.

It's here that Pyle first meets Fowler, where Phuong stops for her daily ice cream, and where much of the action takes place. It was also in Lam Son Square that – in an amazing sign of how attitudes have liberalised since the bad old days before 1986 –the Saigon authorities permitted Noyce to stage a recreation of the massive and destructive terrorist explosion caused by Pyle's protégé, the corrupt General Thé.

The problem is that, from a cinematic perspective, the restoration and development of central Saigon has been just too successful to recreate the Catinat district of Greene's day. There are too many gleaming, high-rise buildings, too many new Japanese and Korean cars – and a definite dearth of opium dens. The same is true elsewhere in the city. When Fowler met Phuong she was a taxi-dancer at the Grande Monde on Tran Hung Dao in Cholon, an institution which has long since been replaced by Nha Van Hoa, a modern cultural centre. Nearby, the elegant Arc-en-Ciel Hotel still graces the skyline, its mauve and green façade a distinctive art-deco masterpiece.

Similarly the infamous “House of Five Hundred Girls”, frequented by Granger and said to be the largest brothel of its time in Asia (it was in fact less respectfully known to the French as the “Parc au Buffles”) is now a respected educational centre. Even the Bridge to Dakao where Pyle met his sticky end (across the Thi Nghe Channel between District 1 and Binh Thanh), originally a rickety iron span, was demolished in 1972 and replaced with a modern concrete structure. Quai My Tho, where Fowler first discovered Pyle's Dialacton explosive materials erroneously abandoned at Mr Chou's junkyard, still stands by the Ben Nghe Channel in southern Cholon, but a warehouse is just that and has no special historical or cinematic significance.

Because of the fast-changing nature of Saigon, the producers of the 2002 version of The Quiet American were obliged to be creative. Many of the period interiors, including some of the opium den scenes, were taken in the lovely old port city of Hoi An by the Tu Bon River, far to the north. Some of the Cholon material (in particular an elaborate recreation of the “House of Five Hundred Girls”) was staged in the nearby port city of Da Nang. Moving northwards, the production team spent four days based at the inland port of Ninh Binh. From here they filmed the extraordinary Sino-Vietnamese Catholic cathedral of Phat Diem and the nearby covered bridge, site of Fowler's discovery of General Thé's initial massacre when the town canal was literally choked with decomposing corpses.

A decision was taken to film Fowler's confrontational interview with Thé by the banks of the nearby Ngo Dong River at Tam Coc, rather than at the renegade general's fictional headquarters on Nui Ba Den or “Black Lady Mountain” near Tay Ninh. This apparently had more to do with respecting the cultural sensibilities of the Cao Dai establishment and the outstanding natural beauty of Tam Coc than with any problems shooting at Nui Ba Den – after all, the mountain is still there and pretty much unchanged as Greene must have known it.

Finally, and somewhat ironically, Noyce's 2002 version of The Quiet American completed filming in and around Hanoi, Saigon's old rival and the undisputed capital of reunified Vietnam. This was because, over the past decades, Saigon has changed and modernised so fast in relation to its smaller, quieter northern cousin. Today the restored colonial architecture of Hanoi is palpably more reminiscent of Saigon in the 1950s, and it was here that many locations, including the exterior of Fowler's apartment, the French Surêté and many contemporaneous street scenes were shot. In particular, the exterior of Fowler's office was set in the heart of Hanoi's Old Quarter or “36 Streets”, quite unmistakably on Hang Tre, or “Bamboo Street”, where great stacks of bamboo have lined the yellow-ochre walls for as long as six centuries!

Still, even with these creative (and clearly very necessary) innovations, the great city of Saigon remains the heart Graham Greene's Vietnam, and the elegant, Francophile districts of Catinat and the Saigon Opera are very much back in vogue. Twenty years ago, who could have foreseen it? In terms of tourist dollars, it should certainly do better for Vietnam, and last longer than the DMZ!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media