The novel opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to come to his apartment. Pyle was supposed to come at 10 p.m., but it is now after midnight. Restless from waiting, Fowler leaves the apartment. In the street, Fowler happens upon his former Vietnamese lover, Phuong, who has left him to be with Pyle. Fowler invites her to come up and wait for Pyle with him.
Back in Fowler’s apartment, Phuong prepares his opium pipe. Fowler asks her if Pyle is in love with her. She does not answer him directly, so he changes tack and asks her if Pyle still refuses to smoke opium. She confirms that he does not smoke. Referencing a Vietnamese superstition that a lover who smokes opium will always return, Fowler tells Phuong that she had better make Pyle smoke if she wants him to come back to her.
Fowler takes his first pulls of smoke and tries not to worry about Pyle, reasoning that the American wants to avoid a late-night call. He tells Phuong that Pyle probably won’t be coming, and he asks her to stay the night. She does not respond. After smoking a second pipe, someone knocks at the door. The late-night caller is a Vietnamese policeman who commands Fowler to come to the Sûreté (the French investigat bureau) immediately. Fowler assents without question, noting to himself that the police exercise their power unscrupulously in wartime.
Fowler takes Phuong with him to the Sûreté, where the French inspector Vigot is waiting for them. Vigot asks Fowler when he first met Pyle. Foler recalls their first meeting, but he does not tell the story to Vigot. Fowler had been sitting at an outdoor café at the Continental Hotel when Pyle walked up to him and asked to join him, explaining that he was new to Saigon. Pyle startled at the sound of a car exhaust sputtering, worried that it was a grenade. Fowler assured him it was not a grenade, but he still enjoyed making a joke at Pyle’s expense.
Fowler realizes that Pyle must be dead, and Vigot confirms his suspicion. Without the inspector asking, Fowler claims that he is not guilty, and he offers a detailed account of his activities that evening between 6 and 10 p.m. He also confirms Phuong’s whereabouts.
Vigot explains that Pyle’s body was found in the water under a bridge next to the Vieux Moulin restaurant. He also indicates that he does not feel sorry about Pyle’s death