In Graham Greene’s Footsteps
The Quiet American – a leisurely half-day walking tour
The Rue Catinat made famous by Graham Greene’s minor masterpiece has been reincarnated as Dong Khoi. Once the fashionable watering hole of wealthy stylish colonials, it descended the social ladder to become the destination of choice of GIs looking for ‘action’ amongst sleazy bars during the sixties. Today it has risen, phoenix-like, to become one Ho Chi Minh City’s most ritzy streets.
At the southern end, facing the Saigon River, is the excellent Majestic, Greene’s preferred hotel where he spent most of his time writing the first draft of the novel. A few metres northwards on the other side of Rue Catinat is the building that provided the inspiration for the flat for Fowler, his central character. Then, it was badly dilapidated, but it's now the stucco and marble Grand Hotel. A little further north is the Palais Cafe, where Fowler played quatre cent vingt-et-un with Lieutenant Vigot of the Surete.Greene also stayed for a time in an apartment at 109 Rue Catinat, now a small hotel called the Mondial.Continuing up Rue Catinat, you come to Lam Son Square and the Continental Hotel, another Greene icon. In the 2003 film of the book, Pyle, the American agent, waits for the explosion outside the Municipal Theatre in the Continental’s terrace café, Sadly, it is no more - a misguided 1989 ‘renovation’ removed it and many more of the hotel’s colonial features.Other locations mentioned in the novel are within easy walking distance. In Paris Square, (now Cong Xa Pari) is Notre Dame Cathedral. The General Post Office also gets a mention. It’s a superb example of early colonial architecture, and more or less untouched since 1888. Its cavernous entrance gives it the feel of an old railway station.
The Banque Indo Chine (now the Ho Chi Minh City division of the National Bank of Vietnam) is not far away, and is still in excellent condition. However, the Dakow Bridge where Pyle was murdered and dumped in the river has been demolished.
A sunny morning, a copy of the book, and plenty of pauses to replenish your energy in the pastry and coffee shops of Dong Khoi is a gentle way to delve into a fascinating aspect of Saigon’s colonial past. Perhaps topped off with lunch in the Hotel Caravelle, just across the road from Continental, it’s an even better experience. The rooftop open-air bar with its magnificent 360 degree panoramic views of the city is a pleasant place to ponder over Saigon's evolution into today's megalopolis.