You see ‘The Quiet American’ by Grahame Green sold everywhere in Ha Noi, it’s an irony that shouldn’t be lost on you considering the book was set in the South Vietnam capital at the time of the French war with the Vietnamese who would eventually reclaim the former as their capital.
The imagery Grahame Greene conjures up of Saigon, with his main character Tom Fowler, is cool and candid. Reporters gathering for lunches and dinners, press conferences with anxious French generals, ballroom dancing. It was the fifties after all.
The one road that conjures up more style than most in the book is the Rue Catinat. That was Greene’s character’s sense of home coming, where he longed to be when he was away, and where he felt most comfortable when he was there. I loved the book, I thought it was really nicely, subtly, prophetic of America’s involvement in the war. I really admired the way he portrayed Pyle as ‘the quiet American’.
So we went to go and find the ‘Rue Catinat’ and this is what we found.
It’s now called Đường Đồng Khởi and runs from the riverside up to the post office.
We started where Greene lived in the ‘Majestic Hotel’.
Looks like it’s namesake now doesn’t it but when Greene lived here it was a bit different. They have some old pictures up in their lobby. In some of the pictures, the hotel looks really run down and shabby. This was taken around 1950, it looks art deco and has style.
They let us in and have a wander without hassle, there’s a restaurant on the 7th floor which looks over the river. it’s strange to see the other side with hardly anything on it. The staircases were brilliant.
We were following a rough guide from the internet as we sauntered down the old rue Catinat.
http://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/grahamgreenethequietamerica/ – this was written in 1999 and a few things have changed.
Apart from a few tips of the hat in shop names, there’s no sense of the old French road name. There is still the wonderful architecture though.
The place that Greene chose to base Fowler in the book was the Grand. Still filled with the charm of the era, restored with care and attention.
There were a few other places that we looked for, Greene himself stayed in an apartment at 109 Rue Catinat. It seems to be a hotel now.
Greene chose the Majestic over the Continental hotel, because he thought it had more charm. The building on the far side of the square is the Continental, it was popular with the journalists at the time. The building on the right is the opera house.
There were plenty of buildings that get a mention in the book around this area.
We nipped into a little cafe to have a bit of lunch, you could imagine journalists sat here sipping whiskeys, chatting about the progress of the war.
Grand old colonial buildings are still used by the Vietnamese government.
The Notre Dame Cathedral sits impressively at the end of Rue Catinat.
One of the most beautiful buildings in the whole of the city is the post office.
You can imagine Fowler coming here to send his telegrams back to the newspapers in Britain.
Inside is actually a tourist spot, with shops on either side. It’s also a working post office. The mix of the two worlds gives it a special atmosphere between busy and relaxed.
Of course, Uncle Ho is hanging up there on the wall.
There are two really interesting maps in here. The first one is of Saigon and it’s ‘environs’. It doesn’t look as big as it is now does it!
The second map is of the telegraphic lines of the area circa 1936.