Fowler has just encountered Pyle, who’s staying with him in the military base. Pyle explains how he came to be at the military base: he bought a boat, which he rode “against the current.” Fowler asks why he wanted to come to the military base at all, but Pyle says that this would take too long to explain. After a long pause Pyle tells Fowler that he’s come to find Fowler himself. Pyle has fallen in love with Phuong, he explains. Fowler finds this hilarious—he wonders aloud why Pyle couldn’t have waited a week for Fowler to return to Saigon. Pyle answers that he couldn’t stand to be away from Phuong for so long.
Pyle’s struggle against the current of the river symbolizes his mad, contradictory struggle to impose peace and order in Vietnam. He fights the natural chaos of all things, in the naïve hope that his academic training will give him the ability to succeed. For the time being, Pyle seems fairly successful in his goals—he manages to track down Fowler, after all. His love for Phuong, based on only a few moments with her, seems both excessively chivalric and excessively condescending.
Pyle tries to speak frankly with Fowler—he asks Fowler for his first name, which is Thomas. Pyle, calling Fowler “Tom,” tells Fowler that he’s going to ask Phuong to marry him. Fowler is dismissive of this news, though he feels envious when Pyle undresses—he thinks that Pyle “has youth too.” Fowler tells Pyle that he himself can’t marry Phuong, because he has a wife, Helen, back in England—-a Catholic who refuses to divorce. Pyle seems relieved by this news. He tells Fowler that his first name is Alden, and climbs into bed, almost cheerily.
It’s telling that Pyle tries to address Fowler by his first name, while Fowler himself never addresses Pyle by any name other than “Pyle.” Pyle is trying to be friends with Fowler and establish a very American sense of camaraderie. Fowler, on the other hand, is so used to a life of cynicism and distance that he can’t express any interest in befriending Pyle, especially now that he knows Pyle is his rival for Phuong’s affections.
As Pyle and Fowler lie in bed, they hear the sounds of bombs in the distance. Pyle continues speaking about Phuong, and he tells Fowler that they both have Phuong’s “interests” in mind. Fowler angrily disagrees, telling Pyle that he’s only interested in Phuong’s body. He asks Pyle why he doesn’t leave Phuong. Pyle replies that doing so would be unfair to Phuong: he explains that he has planned to “take care” of Phuong, providing for her for the rest of her life. Exhausted and infuriated, Fowler pours whiskey for himself and Pyle, and they drink it, “saying nothing.”
It’s not abundantly clear why Pyle is any more or less acquainted with Phuong than Fowler. Neither man seems to understand Phuong too deeply: she’s a beautiful foreign woman who barely speaks their language, and seems totally mysterious and reserved about her inner life. Yet at least Fowler is upfront about his shallowness, while Pyle fools himself into thinking that he truly loves Phuong. His reason for staying with Phuong seems entirely self-deluding: Pyle wants to believe that he has a “duty” to her.