Fowler arrives in the northern Vietnamese town of Phat Diem to investigate the rumors about the sacking of the cathedral there. He learns that Viet Minh soldiers infiltrated the town during a church procession and unleashed hell. After four days of fighting, the French managed to create a perimeter around the town. Refugees from the town and surrounding areas flood into the cathedral for shelter, and the local bishop tells Fowler his concerns about providing food and medical care for all of them.
Fowler walks through Phat Diem. The town is empty save for two soldiers on watch and one dead body covered in flies. Soon, Fowler comes upon a company of European troops at a church and asks to accompany them. They agree and set out on a reconnaissance mission. Led by a French lieutenant, the troops advance toward a site where people have been gathering for safety. They soon reach a canal that is full of dead bodies and cross it with difficulty. On the other side of the canal, the company comes upon deserted farm buildings. Shots are fired nearby, and Fowler seriously fears for his life, preparing himself mentally for death. Meanwhile, the company finds the bodies of two civilians just beyond the farm: a woman and a young boy.
The company makes its way back to the officers’ quarters, where Fowler plans to spend the night. Fowler receives a candle, matches, and a revolver and beds down on a mattress in a store room. Fowler falls asleep and dreams of Pyle dancing on a stage with an invisible partner. Fowler wakes up at 3:00 a.m., and Pyle is standing in the door of the store room.
Pyle explains that he followed Fowler to Phat Diem to tell him that he has fallen in love with Phuong. Pyle believes that it would be in her best interests to be with a man who wants to marry her and give her children. Upset, Fowler claims not to care about her best interests, and he says he only wants her body. In his mind, Fowler wonders whether it is possible to understand another person, much less know what’s in their best interests. Fowler pours whiskey, and the men drink in silence.
Chapter 5 takes place three weeks later. Fowler is Hanoi, and he recounts the events of 5 retrospectively. He explains that Pyle left Phat Diem the same morning he arrived, departing without a word. Fowler meditates on the peril that Pyle faced both coming to and leaving Phat Diem on a river patrolled by snipers. He also expresses disgust with Pyle’s apparent inability to imagine himself as someone who could be in danger or cause pain to others. By the time Fowler found a way to Hanoi, Pyle had already departed, but he left Fowler a letter expressing his gratitude for Fowler’s understanding. Pyle also expresses how relieved he is at no longer feeling “mean” regarding his intentions toward Phuong. Fowler marvels at Pyle’s self-centeredness.
While in Hanoi, Fowler attends a press conference. The American correspondent Bill Granger is there as well. When the colonel presiding over the conference becomes evasive about reporting on the losses sustained by the French forces, Granger pressures him until he reveals that the French were down to just one helicopter because the American government not yet delivered promised supplies. The colonel explains that having just one helicopter means that French soldiers who suffer any wound at all will likely die from having to wait for transportation.