The Quiet American still captivates history-minded travellers in Vietnam

The Quiet American 1966 cover
© Mark Bowyer

One of the many rewards of our recent Vietnam by the Book tour, was rereading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of three books I used to create our Vietnam by the Book, 16 day tour. So I was very pleased to pick up this rare 1966 copy from a second-hand bookshop in Sydney before our most recent tour earlier this year.

1966 cover of Graham Greene's The Quiet American
1966 edition of The Quiet American thanks to a local second-hand bookshop. © Mark Bowyer


The incendiary cover is remarkable given the state of the developing war in Vietnam in 1966.

The shot was taken by celebrated 1960s fashion photographer Ronald Traeger, who tragically died of cancer soon after.

The Quiet American references were done to death by cliched tourism folk (like me) in the 1990s, when tourism was reopening in Vietnam. So when I decided I should use the book as one of the references for our tour, I wondered whether it would still mean anything?

As it turned out, our travellers loved it. It was a delight to reread and I recommend it.

The 1890 bell Phat Diem Cathedral
We visit the church tower at Phat Diem from which Greene watched the French battle the Viet Minh © Mark Bowyer


Written seven decades ago, The Quiet American continues to connect with historically curious travellers. Greene wrote the book, mostly in early 1950s Saigon, long before the arrival of American ground troops in 1965. His focus is the dying days of France’s Indochina empire. Greene’s genius is in his imagining of the flaws and risks that would culminate in America’s coming Vietnam catastrophe.

By the end of French colonial rule in May 1954, the US was paying most of the cost of France’s war against Ho Chi Minh’s independence forces. Cold War America was well invested in Vietnam. That investment was about to escalate exponentially – with terrible human and financial cost.

Greene’s insights are astonishing for a man who was only in the country for a relatively short time. 

We retrace his steps through Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Dien Bien Phu and Saigon – finishing with a stay at the Continental Hotel in Saigon, where much of the book is said to have been written.

Greene’s time in Vietnam included interviews with both Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam’s last King, Bao Dai. I haven’t been able to find these yet and the biographies I’ve read don’t provide any detail.

The view from Graham Greene's room at the Continental Hotel, Saigon
The view from Graham Greene’s room at the Continental Hotel may be one of the few things in downtown Saigon he might recognise. © Mark Bowyer


As I admire this 1966 edition of The Quiet American, I am reminded of the spirit of good second-hand bookshops. They bring enormous joy to huge numbers of people. They’re a uniquely valuable old-world source of knowledge as technology’s promise of access to information fails us.

I picked this copy up at the wonderful Sappho Books in Glebe (Sydney). Thanks Sappho!

Click here to find out more about our Vietnam by the Book tour

For a look at our Saigon short tours click here.

And for our independent travel guides to Vietnam, head over to Rusty Compass.

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