Chasing the Ghost of Graham Greene in Contemporary Vietnam

Graham Greene immortalized French Indochina in The Quiet American (1955), his prescient novel of CIA intrigue. The novel has endured. I saw tourists reading it on the plane, perhaps hoping to find in Vietnam a surviving outpost of Greeneland: world-weary colonials gone to seed, opium fumeries, and exotic taxi dancers. The French era (1887–1954) has left its mark, but in present day Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — I had more success finding English-speakers.

I was in Vietnam with my mates to jointly celebrate our 30th birthdays. We checked into the Hotel Continental on Lam Son square. Norman Sherry’s exhaustive three-volume biography of Greene recalls that a bomb was detonated in the square in January 1952. Another bomb exploded simultaneously a block away, killing eight Vietnamese and two French nationals. Although initially blamed on Viet Minh communist guerillas, responsibility was swiftly assigned to the dissident Colonel Thé. Greene would use the bombing (with minor changes to chronology) as the centerpiece of his novel, tying Thé’s terrorism to the covert support of the CIA for a ‘third force’ in Vietnam.

When I arrived at Lam Son, workers had begun to gut an entire block opposite the Continental along Dong Khoi, the former rue Catinat. Mass redevelopment was imminent. The bricks and broken glass and powdery plaster spilling from the gutted shops onto the footpaths inadvertently recreated what Lam Son must have looked like when the bombs exploded. A grim sight. Only a few meters away street vendors hawked pirated The Quiet American paperbacks.

The Continental dates from 1880. Here Greene’s Thomas Fowler first meets the American operative Alden Pyle. A bar called the Continental Shelf used to be the meeting place for European and American foreign correspondents and diplomats. That bar is now gone. I went into the hotel’s newer street level bar, La Dolce Vita Café, facing Dong Khoi. I drank two gin and tonics in a wicker chair under ceiling fans, sweating hard in the ambience of the colonial Far East. Greeneland! Spoiled only by a pounding Pussycat Dolls soundtrack.

My second story suite had a balcony overlooking the square and the Municipal Theatre. The room featured lacquered chairs with mother–of–pearl marquetry, a white bath robe and slippers, bureau à gradin, flat screen TV, Parisian toilet. The hotel has a central open courtyard for breakfast dining. Wrought iron chairs. Glass-topped tables with bamboo place mats. A small fountain. Lacy white spheres hanging from spindly branches. The walls enclosing the courtyard were pale pink with white trimmings.

I took long breakfasts of baked beans on pumpernickel and French fries and paw paw as I worked on a long story based on my days in Greece. Once again, it was one of those “maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan” kind of things. It was easy to imagine Greene at work here, too, under the trees.

In the streets of Saigon you smell petrol fumes, carbon monoxide, shit from corrupted sewers, fish sauce, the Saigon River. Everything mixed together. Across the city there’s little division between upmarket tourist restaurants and tin-roofed greasy-spoons for the locals. Usually they’re next door to each other.

On the periphery of the Ben Thanh Market I passed stalls selling dragon fruit and custard apples. I bought a bunch of lady-finger sugar bananas for 25,000 Vietnamese dong – just over $1(US). This fruit tasted so much richer than anything I ever find in Sydney. A woman in the markets tried to sell me a fake vintage U.S. Army Zippo lighter. Not for me. Back on Dong Khoi I walked towards the waterfront. I admired the black-haired Vietnamese beauties in traditional ao dai dresses or simple jeans and t-shirts. I passed the Grand Hotel, mentioned in Greene’s novel, as well as clothing shops, cafés, and the ubiquitous happy ending massage parlours.

The Majestic Hotel lies at the waterfront end of Dong Khoi. According to Sherry, it was here Greene met the air hostess who inspired the Phuong character. I also saw a picture of Catherine Deneuve, apparently a guest during the filming of Indochine (1992). Up on the eighth story balcony I found a new watering hole called M Bar. Out on the terrace the wind was cool above the baking traffic. I drank a mojito while gazing past the river across the swampy District Two towards high-rise residential buildings in the distant north-east. Only recent construction is raising this very horizontal city.

Back down at street level I took a boat tour across the Saigon into District Two, former Viet Minh territory, a delta of wilderness with glimpses of the city in the background. An entrepreneur could sell it as an Apocalypse Now theme park ride. Shacks and shanties on the swampy banks, kids splashing in the mucky brown water, fishermen drawing in nets, guys snoozing in hammocks. There were almost no birds around. Maybe a lone ibis. No mosquitos, either. The river was clogged with tangled branches, fruit peels, PET bottles, putrid café au lait currents.

In 1986 the Vietnamese dictatorship instigated market reforms after a decade of Marxist central planning. What they have now seems less like communism and more like low level unregulated capitalism: no paternalistic restrictions on the sale of smokes and booze, no legal redress for mass copyright and trademark infringement, all prices negotiable. Streetside vendors flog bottles of tap water, refilled Coke bottles, pirated DVDs, cigarettes, cans of Heineken and Tiger beer, anything you need. Cyclo drivers and shoeshiners hassle you for business. Barbers cut hair under the trees.

The place teems with activity. You see straw-hatted women skewering rubbish into dumpsters. Uniformed kids hang around the English language schools. Motorbikes and scooters weighed down by boxes or animal carcasses or even refrigerators scream through in huge packs. This all happens beneath telegraph poles that hold up hundreds of electricity and telephone lines snaking every which way. Hundreds!

The War Remnants Museum has captured U.S. Army fighter jets and helicopters and tanks in the forecourt. When I arrived cementing was going on between the milling tourists. Nobody roped off the work for safety. There was a recreation of a ‘Tiger Cage’ prison where prisoners were tortured during the Vietnam (or American) War. The exhibit, which highlighted US atrocities – carpet bombings, massacres, Agent Orange-related birth defects – had an archaic propagandistic tone. Trust me, Vietnam: you don’t have to push the hard sell. Everybody was silenced by what they saw.

I encountered the same tone at the Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon. Our tour guide called himself John Wayne. I don’t know whether he was being ironic, because his uncle had been a Viet Cong guerilla. At the site, a 250km network of underground jungle hideouts, we got to see what guerilla warfare would have been like. Charlie everywhere but invisible. Saw lethal spiked bamboo traps (“Why you call them boobies?” asked John Wayne. “Aren’t boobies something else? Ha Ha!”).

At the shooting range my mates and I were armed with AK–47s to blast away at targets. Quite a kick to the shoulder and noisy as all hell. I hit the bullseye a couple of times. Then my magazine jammed. I was afraid a shell would explode in my face. After that we descended into a tunnel for 100 meters. One guy exited after 20. Claustrophobia. I shuffled on, crouching down. It was tight, even though widened for foreign tourists.

The author and his friends outside the Continental Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) / Photo (partial) by © Ben Packham

Tea with Ho Chi Minh

Back above ground we chewed on tapioca and peanuts (the V.C. staple foods) and watched a documentary beneath a portrait of Uncle Ho. Grainy black and white footage, newsreel style. Vietnamese guitar music. Out in the jungle under decades of merciless attack by the French and then the US, the guerillas were always happy, nobody ever had disagreements. Cut to laughing V.C. guerilla chewing tapioca. Story of peasant girl winning ‘Most Killer of Americans’ Award. The narrator seemed to have a Vietnamese–Australian accent.

We took a boat back down the Saigon River to the city. Soon enough I left Saigon and flew to Nha Trang for scuba diving off Mun Island. I read Maugham’s The Book Bag on the beach. From there I took a sleeper train north to Da Nang. My two mates and I were herded into a ‘hard bed’ carriage. I had never done a sleeper train before. I wasn’t expecting North by Northwest and Eva Marie Saint, but I hoped for some rest.

At the outdoor bar, La Terrasse du Metropole, I ordered a ‘Graham Greene’, a concoction of gin, vermouth, and crème de cassis under an icy slush, his preferred cocktail.

This, however, was much worse than a simple train seat. Two triple bunk beds per compartment. There was a Vietnamese family in the bottom bunks, so I was assigned a top bunk. The space between the top bunk and the ceiling replicated the dimensions of a coffin. The mattress was indeed hard, like all beds in Vietnam. This was okay. Not too much coiled pubic hair on the top sheet.

We three guys dumped our backpacks and went to the dining carriage. The walls were hospital green and spattered with a half century of dirt, grime, food. We sat at a scratched table on torn leatherette seats and ordered round after round of Heineken at $1(US) a can. Merriment for all. We talked old school memories and women. We stopped short of slurring Cold Chisel’s Australian rock classic Khe Sanh. Should we sit out the ten-hour train ride in the dining carriage rather than cram ourselves into our coffins? Good idea. Fill me a bottle of sack!

Half a dozen drinks later, at midnight, the workers in the dining cart stopped their poker game. They needed the booth tables for beds. We were gestured out. No worries. But, considering our spirited imbibing, a bladder draining was in order for two of us. Earlier we’d passed the bathrooms: tiny cubicles, an aluminum floor, footrests, and a gaping hole. An inch of sloshing, steaming piss. Luckily my shoes were waterproof. Come midnight my mate and I encountered locked doors on the toilets in each carriage. We found a blue-uniformed train attendant.

“Toilet?” we asked.

She frowned with disgust and waved us away. Undesirables. “But we have to use the toilet!” Same reaction, now more vehement. We stalked up the carriage and found another attendant. Identical response. Disgust. Dismissal. The implication? You bloody Westerners should have gone at the allotted time. These hundreds of other comrades went when they were allowed. Now it’s lights out. With all the authoritarianism of primary school teachers, they were declaring power of attorney over our bladders.

I pissed into a sink while my mate stood guard. “Hold it!” he hissed. “She’s coming back!” Hasty pause and zip. My bladder muscles were put to the test. The guard herded us into our dark compartment and slammed the cattle door. Our tipsiness had faded. We fumbled up into our bunks. My mate reached sadly for an empty water bottle. Not me! I jumped back down from my bunk and tried to open the door. It wouldn’t open. Locked? No, just jammed. I wrenched it open and scurried to the sink and let two litres flow in a big wonderful gush.

From Da Nang we moved on to Hue and then by plane to Hanoi. Looking across Hoan Kiem Lake and its Ngoc Son Temple, I had a long lunch and espresso with cognac. It was cooler in Hanoi, rainy and grey, but thickly humid. A bulky Italian woman staggered from the restaurant bathroom, vomited on the tiles, and collapsed into her mess. Her leathery travel companions faced the lake and left it to the waiters to mop her up. I strode along the grand French boulevards that circle the lake.

I checked into a hotel in the Old Quarter, narrow streets dense with motorbikes and scooters, buses, pedestrians, touts, backpackers, kids. Two-or three-story buildings throughout. Although the district predates the French by nearly 900 years, the Old Quarter in 2010 seems like Paris of the ’20s. A Moveable Feast. At dawn you wake to a swelling cacophony of scooter horns, barking dogs, music, people singing and screaming, buzzsaws, jackhammers.

Outside you have to walk with the traffic because the footpaths are taken over by workers carving tombstones, cross–legged butchers cleaving hunks of pork or beef or chicken, women washing their hair in tin buckets, vendors selling hotdogs and iced tea, mounds of flaming fake money, hundreds of parked motor scooters, dozens of little plastic stools upon which people squat to eat noodle soup cooked on oil stoves. Of course, the street never has less than a few hundred scooters hooting their way through the pedestrians. There are cluttered shopfronts selling bespoke suits, pho, furniture, tours to Ha Long Bay. Narrow alleys at the end of which you spy courtyards where half-naked men doze watching telenovelas.

Along Pho Gia Ngu begins the food market, a cluster of stalls under canvas. You find women sitting over buckets of still-writhing fish, lobsters, eels, crabs, shrimp. Women butcher the fish on chopping boards, blood runs onto the muddy concrete, a scooter blurts through. Other stalls sell every kind of vegetable.

The clouds cleared above Hanoi. The city was steaming. I walked through the broad streets of the French Quarter, dodging dangling electric cables and excavated pavement, and arrived at the Metropole Hotel, built in 1901. The Sofitel chain has restored the place to a prohibitively expensive grandeur. Greene used to stay here in the early ’50s before the French lost at Dien Bien Phu. At the outdoor bar, La Terrasse du Metropole, I ordered a ‘Graham Greene’, a concoction of gin, vermouth, and crème de cassis under an icy slush, his preferred cocktail. Other cocktails were named in honour of former guests such as Charlie Chaplin and W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour at the hotel.

It was now time to depart Hanoi for Siem Reap in Cambodia, but I had time for one last social call. According to his book of autobiographical essays, Ways of Escape, Graham Greene took tea with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 1955. Feeling ill on the day of the meeting, Greene calmed his stomach with opium pipes and Eno’s. Well, Uncle Ho is still in Hanoi and my stomach felt fine. I lined up outside his cold stone temple, was asked to surrender my knives – I had none – and followed the procession. Armed soldiers marched us along. Be quiet. Remove your sunglasses. Bow your head. We filed inside the building. Darkness. A glass coffin. Chalky hands resting on a chalky black blanket. That white goatee. All I can say is I hope I look so good at 119.

Cau Go Street in the Old Quarter, Hanoi / Photo (partial) by © Ben Packham

Matthew Asprey teaches creative writing at Macquarie University, Sydney. His short stories have appeared in Island, Extempore, Total Cardboard, and various underground ‘zines such as Sydney Samizdat, which he cranks out on an unregistered roneo at his own peril.