The yet unnamed narrator, Thomas Fowler, sits waiting for someone named Pyle to join him in his room following dinner.
When Pyle is more than two hours late, Fowler leaves to check for signs of him in the street. Pyle, it seems, was supposed to have joined him for dinner as well.
He returns to his room and recognizes a girl waiting in the next doorway. This is Phuong. She's also waiting for Pyle.
Fowler invites her to wait with him in his room. They pass some gossiping old ladies on the landing.
Phuong makes some tea as Fowler rests in bed. Fowler is reminded of six months ago, when the two of them lived together. She's with Pyle now and presents herself more to his liking than to Fowler's. If you guessed there's tension in the room, you guessed right.
Fowler tries unsuccessfully to get Phuong to tell him details about her relationship with Pyle.
She brings him his pipe so he can smoke some opium.
He offers consoling words about Pyle's absence, repeating "Nothing to worry about." (1:1:31)
But then he counsels her not to marry Pyle because Pyle doesn't smoke and might therefore be unfaithful. He's appealing to a superstition.
Phuong asks why Pyle hasn't arrived yet. Fowler denies knowing anything, but reassures her again that he'll come.
There's a knock on the door, but Fowler can tell from the sound that it's not Pyle.
At the door is a Vietnamese police officer. In broken French, he tells Fowler he's needed urgently at the French police station. Phuong too.
Aware that a refusal could make life in this foreign country difficult for him, he complies with the order.
At the police station, the officer Vigot breaks from reading Pascal's Les Pensées to welcome them.
He questions Phuong about her relationship with Pyle. Fowler objects to his asking how much Pyle pays her to live with him.
Vigot turns to Fowler, asking him to conform that Phuong lived with him for two years.
Fowler says he's just a correspondent who's supposed to report on France's war in Vietnam, when the French will let him. He says he won't contribute to Vigot's scandal sheet and that he's not an informer.
He says all that he knows of Pyle is that he is a quiet American, is 32 years old, and works for the Economic Aid Mission.
"You sound like a friend of his," Vigot says to him (1.1.72). Fowler doesn't deny it, but he doesn't want to explain to the officer how the two of them met.
As the narrator, Fowler tells us instead. Flashback time!
Pyle met Fowler outside at a hotel bar in Saigon. Seeing the place mostly full, Pyle asks if he can sit with Fowler at one of the tables on the street.
After he sits, a loud bang distracts him. He asks Fowler, "with excitement and hope," if the noise was a grenade (1.1.78). Fowler speculates that it was most likely the exhaust of a car.
Fowler is used to grenades in Saigon, but he can appreciate the younger man's interest in "news."
Pyle says to Fowler that the Minister is very concerned about the grenades and the awkwardness that would come if one of them were injured or harmed.
Fowler teases him a little, suggesting that a European man's death in Vietnam wouldn't cause a scene the way an American man's would.
Houston, we have that scene.
Fowler and Phuong have been brought to the French police station because Pyle is dead.
"Not guilty," Fowler says to Vigot.
Looking at Phoung to see her reaction, Fowler thinks she hasn't understood what they've been discussing.
He tells Vigot what he'd been doing between six and ten, the hours Vigot is interested in. At six he had a drink at the Continental bar. At 6:45 he walked to the quay to watch planes unloaded. He caught a movie afterwards, then had dinner by himself at 8:30 at the Vieux Moulin. At a quarter to ten he took a trishaw back to his place, where he says he was expecting Pyle.
Vigot informs him that Pyle was found dead under the bridge to Dakow, near the Vieux Moulin. Curious, Spock might say. Anyway, it wasn't a safe bridge at night.
Fowler says he got mixed up, and Vigot admits he's not entirely sorry. Pyle was apparently doing a lot of harm.
Fowler identifies the body, telling himself again that he's innocent.
Vigot points to a wound in Pyle's chest, but says that Pyle wasn't killed by it. There was mud in his lungs.
Fowler and Phoung return to the reporter's flat, on the way stopping by the cable office so he can report news of Pyle's death, leaving out the dead man's true career and his responsibility for at least fifty deaths. He mustn't damage relations between Britain and the USA. Or upset the Minister, who respected Pyle.
Back at his flat, Fowler breaks the bad news to Phuong.
She doesn't make a scene or shed any tears. She simply looks lost in thought. Now she has to rearrange her whole life.
He awakens at night in bed next to her and wonders if he's the only one who really cared for Pyle.