In the Chalet, Phuong, Fowler and Pyle sit near the dance floor. The orchestra plays an out-of-date Parisian song. Fowler observes two aloof Vietnamese couples dancing, and muses that the Vietnamese are never careless or too passionate. He likens them to 18th century furniture. Pyle apologizes to Phuong (in bad French) for the delay. Pyle’s politeness makes Fowler try to see himself as Pyle sees him, as a middle-aged, cynical man without innocence. He also remembers how he saw Phuong two years ago, when she was a beautiful 18-year-old dancing with an American who thought she was a prostitute.
Fowler observes the Vietnamese as almost a different species—or even a kind of furniture—suggesting an almost total indifference to their thoughts and feelings as individuals. The one exception to this, it would seem, is Phuong—yet it’s unclear exactly what attracted Phuong to Fowler in the first place.
Pyle asks Phuong (in his bad French) to dance. They do, and Pyle is a bad dancer, holding Phuong comically far away from his body. Fowler reminisces that Phuong was the best dancer in the hall when he met her. In the narration, Fowler thinks back on the complexities of his courtship with Phuong. His inability to offer marriage, which Fowler does not explain further, made Phuong’s protective older sister, Miss Hei, wary of him. The courtship lasted seven months before Fowler slept with her.
Pyle’s presence reminds Fowler of his own love for Phuong, and even bolsters Fowler’s self-confidence because of his awkwardness and bad dancing. Fowler likes having Pyle around, at least for now, because Pyle proves that experience is a convincing and attractive alternative to innocence.
Phuong’s sister, Miss Hei, enters the Chalet while Pyle and Phuong are dancing. She joins Fowler at the table. Fowler explains that Pyle is with the American Economic Mission. Miss Hei, a blunt and literal woman, says he dances badly. Pyle and Phuong return to the table. Fowler can see that Phuong likes Pyle’s formal manners, and he feels bad that he does not offer manners to her. In front of Fowler, Miss Hei grills Pyle about his background—obviously trying to determine whether he is a financially stable option for Phuong to marry (instead of Fowler). Pyle answers seriously, oblivious. Miss Hei invites him to dinner with Phuong at a time when Fowler will be away in the north. Pyle dances with Phuong again and makes Fowler think of the early days of being in love with Phuong.
The presence of Miss Hei introduces an immediate conflict to Fowler’s relationship with Phuong and Pyle. Although Miss Hei seems to be challenging Pyle, the overall effect is to make Fowler even more insecure about his relationship with Phuong—he realizes that he’s coarse, drunk, and generally unmannered when contrasted with Pyle. That Fowler is prone to such sudden changes in his feelings—he goes from confident to insecure in only a few seconds—suggests that much of his cynicism and depression comes from low self-esteem.
Fowler thinks about the rumor about the cathedral burning in Phat Diem and wishes his job did not require him to go there for a scoop. Fowler then dwells on his longtime skepticism for the idea of permanence. He likens the inevitability of the end of his relationship with Phuong to the inevitability of death. He both envies and distrusts religious people, and believes death is more certain than God. Fowler’s appreciation for the certainty of death extends to the extreme – he claims to believe that to kill a man is to benefit him, and for that reason, enemies are preferred to the pain of friendship.
Fowler’s belief in the certainty of death parallels the structure of the novel: just as Fowler knows that we’re all going to die, the plot of the novel builds, inevitably, to the death of Pyle—an event which was known to us from the start. At the same time, Fowler’s belief in death and his rejection of God suggests another coping mechanism. Surrounded by war, it’s only natural that Fowler abandons his faith and embraces death, not God, as the ultimate power.
Pyle and Phuong return to the table after their second dance. Pyle speaks about Phuong as if she weren’t there, saying he liked to watch her dance even though he knows he was bad. A raunchy cabaret show begins and Pyle gets upset. He asks that they leave, because he feels the entertainment is not suitable for Phuong.
Pyle’s affection for Phuong seems emphatic but also condescending—he treats her like a child, not capable of deciding what she should or shouldn’t experience. This is an extension of Pyle’s attitude toward Vietnam itself: he thinks of it as a kind of child, needing the guidance of educated Americans.