The story takes place in Saigon, Indochina between March 1952 and June 1955. It is in the middle of the French colonial war.
We meet Thomas Fowler, an aging and jaded London Times reporter. He makes an image of the author, as he is the main character and the narrator in the book. Fowler is not a very complicated man; he doesn’t like the French, doesn’t engage himself in the war and love his young Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. As a Brit he is not very much liked by the French, but the Americans is quite fond of him, especially his friend Pyle.
Alden Pyle is a young American working for the economy attaché. He is a man of few words and a lot of vision. Pyle is a huge fan of the author York Harding, a man of the beliefs of a third force and a non-communist, non-colonial government in Indochina. Pyle has huge faith in the not very reliable general Thé, and that he will be able to steer the country on the right path to democracy. Pyle falls in love with Phuong as he is dancing with her at the restaurant Chalet.
The first thing that happens is that Pyle is found dead in the water under the bridge of Dakow. Fowler was supposed to have dinner with him, as he never showed up. The whole story is spinning around the question of Pyle’s death.
Fowler first met Pyle while sitting at the Continental; he had come across the square towards the bar to the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face. You could say Pyle was the one who met Fowler, as he was the one to engage in a conversation. Pyle doesn’t meet Phuong until two months after this when they are all dining at the Chalet. He immediately falls in love with Phuong while dancing with her.
Fowler decided to go north to report on the war; nevertheless did he expect to find himself having the strangest conversation about his girlfriend to Pyle. Pyle who had unaware of the snipers travelled up the river to be the morally correct man he intended to be, tells Fowler about the love for his girlfriend and that he intends to propose to her. Even more important things happen to Fowler before this takes place. He gets to experience the war with his own eyes and tries to look into a soldiers mind, with the conclusion that: Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility. With this in mind their lives continue, but soon everything changes.
At the annual Caodaist festival in Tanyin, Fowler runs in to Pyle while he is having a chat with a Caodaist commandant. Pyle, who happens to be a terrible liar, blames it on the fact that his car has broken down. Even so, no matter what they were whispering about, Pyle rides along with Fowler who gently offered him to drive back to Saigon. As they are in the middle of nowhere and in the territory of the Vietminh the car runs out of fuel. What would seem like an endless ride with no hope of ever coming to an agreement about politics or the issue concerning Phuong they end up in a watchtower with to young Vietnamese soldiers. The soldiers, who would be easier to reefer to as boys, are even more frightened than they are. Obviously there is all reason to be afraid, suddenly there is someone shouting in a language none of them spoke, except the two almost scared to death boys in the corner. Fowler supposedly the strong and clever one climbs down, in his fears he imagine the ladders being stirred, even though it is just himself shaking with fear. As he falls and twist his ankle Pyle comes after him, and half a minute after they are down a bombshell hits the tower and they are flung to the ground. Fowler at that moment wanted death, he wanted to die, but in his way to the everlasting sleep stood Pyle and his urge to be a hero. As the Vietminh came to make sure they left none survivors they escape and Fowler has to deal with the fact that Pyle saves his life.
The dilemma did not slumber as Fowler was out of the hospital. He surely was confused. Was he supposed to grant him a dinner or a double whiskey? Pyle solved his problems by showing up at his door. It is not mentioned earlier, but Thomas Fowler is a married man, his wife lives in England and there is no love at all between the two of them. She is a Christian woman who denies Fowler the divorce he wants, so he can keep Phuong. Fowler sent a letter, asking for her to divorce him. In hope not to loose Phuong to Pyle he told her the reply was positive and that soon he would get it his way. Pyle has read the letter which she sent, telling Fowler that there was no way whatsoever she would divorce him. He is furious, and at that point we all know Fowler has lost his girlfriend to the young idealistic American.
Nevertheless this story is not nearly over. As Pyle has engaged himself in the task of making Indochina a democracy he is doing some underground business with General Thé. The Third force, York Harding’s brilliant idea is somewhat set to action under Pyle’s influence. Fowler’s friend Dominguez tips him of about the Chinese guy Mr. Heng. The information, which Mr. Heng gives him, is very disturbing and involves bicycle bombs. These bombs are of no ability to kill the one riding the bike, but loosing a foot has never done anything good for sake of freedom.
Sitting in a café at the square of Saigon, trying to avoid Phuong who is always in the milk bar at that time of day Fowler becomes aware of two American girls. They are talking to one another, looking at the watch and then say that they better be of as Warren told them not to stay any longer than 11:25. In that very moment a huge bang can be heard, the glass in the mirrors single out all over the place, and the pulp French woman’s make-up is thrown in Fowler lap, who surprisingly sits still. The chaos, the screams and the hysterical Fowler trying to get to Phuong who he believes is sitting at the milk bar are horrible. There are lying women with their dead babies in their arms and trishaw drivers with no feet. Pyle reached Fowler as he was breaking through the police cordon trying to get to Phuong. He hurriedly yelled in his ear, twice, that she was not there. She had been warned, just as Warren had warned the two American girls. Fowler pushes Pyle into the square and they stand there, in blood and dead bodies. Pyle looked around, noticing the blood on his foot, only to ask; what is that? Pyle had never seen a real war before. His respond to the answer “blood”, was: “I must wash it of before I see the minister.” The state of his shock was not to be overlooked; the frightened young boy could hardly believe that General Thé would do such a thing knowing that the parade was cancelled. Alden Pyle is a disaster for the sake of democracy.
As Mr. Heng is without doubt furious of the action Pyle has caused he agrees that something has to be done. As Pyle is his own chief, and the most narrow sighted person in the whole of Saigon Mr. Heng proposes that he and Fowler eats dinner at the Vieux Moulin. Mr. Heng would simply talk to him before he got there. They would have a nice and clean conversation.
Fowler sits at the Vieux Moulin, and waits for Pyle, who he knows never will show up, ever. He thinks about calling it of, finding Pyle and let him stays at his house. He never does. He walks home, and out in the streets where he finds Phuong. They go home to the rue Catinat, and are disturbed by the knocking of a police officer. As we are back at the beginning I feel like taking the freedom to tell that Mrs. Fowler sent a telegram were she claims being unreasonable, and grant Fowler his divorce.
Everything went back to what it was like the day before Pyle came strutting through the square of Saigon, which he so much later laid in ruins.
The hidden theme in this book made it not so well liked in the U.S. The continual discussion of colonials and Alden Pyle as the American believing he can save the world of his own, reminds me of America today. About the colonials, French lost Vietnam, and America fought their war for democracy afterwards. It is all past.