Graham Greene’s Saigon

A view from the Bùng Binh Sài Gòn traffic circle in 1955

“The Saigon locations used by British writer Graham Greene in his acclaimed anti-war novel The Quiet American have long been a favourite topic for travel writers. Here by request is a recap of the most significant landmarks. During the period March 1952 to June 1955, Graham Greene made four trips to Sài Gòn as a foreign correspondent. While based here, he wrote The Quiet American, a prophetic tale of a naïve young American’s misguided efforts to bring democracy to the Far East. While he was in Saigon, Greene’s life was focused almost exclusively on the privileged expat world of the city centre, and in particular on rue Catinat (modern Đồng Khởi street), still at that time the epitome of colonial chic. Greene is known to have taken a daily constitutional up this street, ‘to where the hideous pink cathedral blocked the way.’ The Notre Dame Cathedral end of Đồng Khởi street therefore makes a great starting point for a tour of some of the real-life places Greene used to flesh out The Quiet American. The large building opposite the Saigon Metropolitan Tower at 164 Đồng Khởi was 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, American agent Alden Pyle. Although it was set up in around 1917, the current building dates from 1933 when its facilities were expanded. It was known in Vietnamese as Bót Catinat (Catinat Police Station) and during the late colonial era it is said that many political prisoners were tortured in its basement cells. The plaque outside the main entrance commemorates the four weeks after the August Revolution when the Việt Minh flag flew over Bót Catinat. However, following the return of the French in late September 1945, Bót Catinat resumed its original function as the city’s colonial police headquarters. Passing it during his daily constitutional, Greene clearly took a disliking to the building, talking in The Quiet American of its ‘dreary walls’ which ‘seemed to smell of urine and injustice.’ …”
HISTORIC VIETNAM: Old Saigon Building of the Week – The Grand Hotel, 1930
Nostalgic Images of Daily Life in Old Saigon

During the first half of the 20th century, Saigon earned a reputation as the Paris of the East. With its wide, tree-lined boulevards and grand colonial buildings – not to mention a significantly smaller population – the southern hub was the talk of not only Vietnam but all of Southeast Asia.

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