As Good As Vietnam Gets
What Graham Greene Was Doing At The Metropole
People love to read in hotels: on the pool-deck especially, at the bars, occasionally when dining and sometimes in the lobby. They read books and magazines. They read from tablets. One day last week in the Bamboo Bar a middle-aged man lowered the book he’d been reading over a gin and tonic and said, quoting from his story, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”
“I know that story,” the bartender said.
He knew the story. We all do at the Hotel Metropole Hanoi. Of all the books that matter at this storied old hotel, none, perhaps, matters more than The Quiet American, for it was in this hotel that Graham Greene met Larry Allen of the Associated Press. Greene recast Allen as the brash American reporter, Granger, in one of the 20th Century’s masterpiece works of fiction.
Greene stayed frequently at the hotel after 1951 when he’d come to Vietnam as a correspondent, covering the First Indochina War. We believe some of The Quiet American was actually written within the walls of the Metropole Wing of the hotel, where he used to stay.
The story details a love triangle between an older, cynical British journalist, an idealistic and somewhat manipulative American, and a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who flits between them until the American is killed and she settles at last with the Brit, Fowler. The language is taut and almost word-by-word perfect.
That night, I went back into the book, lifting up Greene’s wonderfully wrought sentences line by line.
On Vietnam, he writes: “They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here.”
He writes that “innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And he writes that “if you live in a place for long you cease to read about it.”
He was right about that. It had been too long since I’d read this story, or so many of the titles about Vietnam that my guests were reading. I read Greene that evening, and in the morning, I phoned the front desk for reception to meet me outside the door of the hotel’s Graham Greene Suite. We had a couple checking in the next day, my receptionist told me, but it was unoccupied now.
“Mr. Graham Greene was a great British novelist,” the receptionist told me, invoking a line, perhaps, that she’d used on guests to introduce the connection between the legendary writer and the legendary hotel.
I went into the suite, crossed the hardwood floors that were original to the property and surveyed the bedroom. A baldaquin crowned the bed, and a fan idled on the ceiling, a quaint vestige of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
In the living room, I sat at a writing desk anchored by an old wood-handled phone and a green-shaded banker’s lamp. Framed, colored lithographs of Vietnamese musicians referenced the 19th Century. It was the kind of desk Greene himself might have sat down to.
And it was but inches from here, or a matter of mere yards or metres, that Greene himself was writing way back in the day. It was a delicious thought, and I felt lucky once again to be attached to this storied old hotel.
The receptionist was waiting for me at the door when I stepped outside.
“I have some bad news,” she said. There was distress in her face, and my mind rushed to all the corners where things can sometimes go wrong in a hotel.
“In 1955,” she went on, relieving me at once, "when Mr. Greene tried to check in on his last visit to Hanoi, we could not accommodate him. We were fully booked.”