The narration flashes back to the first time Pyle met Phuong, an early evening at the Continental Hotel. Fowler sits with Phuong at a table, silently content to be together, when Pyle approaches and asks the two to join him and the American Economic Attaché at their table. The Attaché says he is surprised to see Fowler, since the American journalists are in Hanoi for a press conference about the fighting there. Fowler responds that he is tired of flying north for press conferences, and suggests that the American journalists are not really doing much work.
Fowler’s indifference to the situation in the north suggests his general indifference to the state of the war effort in Vietnam. Unlike the Americans who take a more active role in the conflict (eventually being the sole foreign power in Vietnam), the English take a more cynical, laconic approach. It’s important that Fowler is more concerned with defending his position to the Attaché than in noticing that Pyle is interested in Phuong.
Fowler and the others watch as Bill Granger, a loud and obnoxious American journalist, arrives in a trishaw outside the Continental and drags a drunken colleague out of another trishaw. Granger argues with his trishaw driver about the fare and then brings the unknown drunken man, whom Granger nicknames “Mick,” over to Pyle’s table where Pyle, Fowler, Phuong, and the Attaché are sitting. Granger hits on Phuong and makes Fowler defensive. Granger then describes the press conference he just returned from, alluding to the fact that the French military only reports things that make them appear to be winning. When the Attaché praises a story Granger wrote, Granger reveals he made up all the details.
Greene, a self-described “Englishman through and through,” is often broadly satirical about Americans. Indeed, the only Americans in his novel are either foolish, immature drunks, or over-refined, unworldly innocents. This isn’t a bad characterization of the way England saw the United States following the Second World War: England was no longer the dominant world superpower, and they looked on with a mixture of jealousy and sadness as American took their place. It’s also important that Granger, one of the two important Americans in the text, is both a liar and a racist—Greene seems not to have much love for the U.S.
At the table in the Continental Hotel, the Attaché says that there are rumors that the Vietminh have burned down the Phat Diem Cathedral. This piques Fowler’s interest. Pyle hopes the Catholics would be opposed to Communism, but Fowler reveals that to be a naïve view, since the Catholics and Communists rely on each other for trade. Granger says he’s going to a brothel. Pyle invites Fowler and Phuong to dinner, and Granger convinces them to eat at a restaurant next to the brothel. The Attaché says he will take the drunken Granger home.
Greene, a Roman Catholic, is often praised for dramatizing the religious conflicts that plague the modern-day Catholic. Here, Fowler mentions Catholicism with a degree of familiarity that suggests the author’s faith. Once again, we see Fowler’s experience and intelligence juxtaposed with Pyle’s youth and inexperience. Pyle thinks his education is enough to entitle him to succeed as an agent in Vietnam.
Pyle, Granger, Fowler, and Phuong take trishaws to the Chalet and brothel, The House of the Five Hundred Girls. Alone in one trishaw, Fowler tells Phuong that he likes Pyle. Phuong merely responds, “He’s quiet.” Fowler observes that the war in Vietnam seems like the middle ages in Europe, but adds that the Americans would not fit into that historical analogy.
On one hand, Pyle lacks any of the experience that has helped Fowler survive in Vietnam for so long. On the other hand, Pyle’s great advantage—and America’s—is precisely that he has no experience, so he’s not tied down by his past or his prior obligations to others. This leaves him free to still be idealistic and recklessly brave.
When they arrive, Pyle and Granger have already entered the brothel. Fowler feels an instinct to protect Pyle. He goes inside and sees hundreds of women lounging with male companions in an outdoor courtyard surrounded by curtained cubicles. Unaccompanied women aggressively pursue Fowler as he walks over to Pyle and Granger. Pyle is very disturbed by the brothel. Fowler thinks he may be a virgin. Fowler extracts Pyle from the group of women and brings him to the Chalet, where Phuong has been waiting.
Fowler’s friendship with Pyle occasionally takes on an almost homoerotic flavor—here, Pyle’s apparent inexperience with women transitions into a special level of friendship with Fowler. This might also be another instance of Greene emphasizing Pyle’s innocence and idealism in the face of harsh, complicated reality.