The primary characters are known only as The Young Girl and The Chinaman. The daughter of bitter, fearful, poverty-stricken colonials, the Girl is a pretty waif who wears an old silk dress and a man’s fedora and paint her lips bright red when out of her mother’s sight. She and her family are French, but live in Vietnam where her mother is a schoolteacher to local children. Her weak-willed mother, violent older brother, and timid younger brother live in a rural section across the river. The girl is a loner but an excellent student, who dreams of being a writer.
She meets the Chinaman when crossing the river on the ferry, returning to the city after a school holiday ended. He is the son of a Chinese businessman whose fortune was made in real estate, and has recently returned from Paris after dropping out of school. He has the look but lacks the self-assurance of the playboy he fancies himself to be, and he is mesmerized the first time he sees her standing by the rail on a crowded ferry crossing the Mekong River. After some awkward conversation, he offers her a ride to Saigon in his chauffeur-driven limousine and she accepts, although the two barely speak during the drive. The Girl gives her age at the beginning of the film as 15, but lies to The Chinaman by stating that she is 17. He lies to her, telling her he is 32. The following day, he waits for her outside her boarding school, and the two go to the room he rents for entertaining mistresses in the seedy Chinese quarter, where they make love. They realize that “a future together is unthinkable” because she is scheduled to return to Paris soon, and he is arranged to marry a Chinese heiress. Aware of the limited time they have together, they fall into a relationship in which they shed all responsibilities that come with commitment. Every day after school, the girl goes to the bachelor room.
The girl’s family discovers the affair, and though at first angry, they encourage her to continue because the Chinaman is wealthy and able to pay off some of their debts. Despite this added tension, the affair continues passionately. The Chinaman even goes so far as to beg his father for the allowance to be with the girl instead of entering into his arranged marriage, but his father would rather see him dead than with a “white girl.” Though both devastated, the Chinaman marries his arranged bride, and the girl boards a ship days later to return to France.
Decades later, the girl is a successful writer. The Chinaman telephones her, as he is visiting France with his wife. He assured her that he never stopped loving her, and that he would not stop for the rest of his life.