Ban Me Thuot AB
Home of Pyramid!
Hooky Lau

by: Channler Drawdy, SSgt
Scope Dope & Pyramid 13
Pyramid 1968-1969
© 2005

Tales from Ban Me Thuot #9: Ban Me Thuot, RVN, Home of Pyramid

 

Hooky Lau - Upon arrival at the Darlac Hotel in Ban Me Thuot, high in the Highlands of Vietnam, one of the first things you heard was mention of something called a Hooky Lau. For those few fortunate souls who were either from Hawaii or had vacationed there, the first thought was someone was talking about a party, Hawaiian style. Party yes! Hawaiian style? Definitely not.

A Hooky Lau, you figured out pretty quickly, by listening to the chatter, was a special name for the local Houses of ill repute -- or the Cat Houses. Ban Me Thuot was the only place in all of Vietnam where Cat Houses were referred to by this name and as far as I know this name was only used by Air Force personnel assigned to Pyramid Control.

For months I heard people speculate about the origins of the name. Most people assumed that the name had been assigned to the Cat Houses by some GI from Hawaii. Not a year passed, it seemed, that we didn't have at least one guy assigned to this unit that was from Hawaii. I can clearly remember the face of the guy in our unit during 1968-1969. I can't remember his name but he loved to perform this ritual about once a week at the Darlac Hotel where most of the Pyramid personnel were billeted.

We would all gather after dinner and before the movie in the Hotel patio area and this Hawaiian guy would make all of us form lines and do the Hula dance and sing the hooky lau song. It’s a song about going to a hooky lau, a party. So, we performed the ritual and loosened up a little before settling into the steel folding chairs in the patio to watch some old movie for the umpteenth time. It was always great fun.

But when-and-how the name got associated with this group of Hotels where all of the local hookers worked? Well, I believe that I have the truth of the matter. It was told to me by two Vietnamese Air Force Sergeants who had been stationed at Pyramid and lived in Ban Me Thuot since the early days of the creation of the site.

Keep in mind that Ban Me Thuot was, in relative terms, a garden spot in Vietnam. At 7500 feet elevation, it was cool and green and a traditional place for Tiger hunting. The last Emperor of Vietnam, Boa Dai, had a summer palace in Ban Me Thuot. It was still there and some of the buildings were actually used by MACV.
The French had been in the area since the beginnings of French Colonial days. Some of the big plantations were owned by Frenchmen and many of the local people had actually been trained by the French in various trades and skills, some of them had received some of their training in France.

On to the point: One day while walking down the street where those infamous hotels were, my best buddy and roommate, Abby, and I encountered our two Vietnamese counterparts, Sergeants Nguyen Van Tan and Nguyen Van My. They came up to us laughing and said, "You guys are going to hooky lau.” Well, it sounded a little different. At first I thought they had said hooky lau, but not true. They had said something similar but different. So, I asked them to repeat it. Now it sounded more like "hoe tea low" (low, as in, how). I stopped dead in my tracks!  I sensed that I was on the verge of a great discovery! The real story behind the naming of the Cat Houses!

I asked for them to spell what they were saying. They pointed to a sign over an office door across the street. It was written in Vietnamese, French and English. It said "Ho Thi Lau – Nurse.” With great excitement and bells ringing loudly inside my head I said, "Ho Thi Lau – Hooky Lau, Ho Thi Lau – Hooky Lau"!  They said, "Yes!”  "Okay, guys", I say, "What gives?  What is the real story behind this hooky lau name for these Cat Houses?” 

Well it seems it all started before the GIs ever got there. The Hotels and the girls had been there, at least during the summers, from back in French times. French soldiers and wealthy Vietnamese who made the trek up to Ban Me Thuot along with the Emperors' entourage had patronized the Hotels in years past. During the rest of the year, even many of the local Vietnamese men patronized the place.

Ban Me Thuot may have been the Emperors' summer vacation spot, but it wasn't big enough to have a full time Doctor, and if it did, most locals couldn't afford a Doctor’s services. An enterprising Nurse, trained by the French when they still had an Army in SEA, decided to offer her health care services to the locals. What better place to open an office than across the street from the source of one the most rampant diseases in the Central Highlands. The girls and their patrons meant a steady supply of patients. I'm sure she dispensed large quantities of black market penicillin and probably did a windfall business as a midwife.

Now for the advent of the name. Whenever a couple of local Vietnamese guys would decide to go visit the Cat Houses or when they arrived back home there was a reasonable chance their wives might ask "Where are you going honey, or where have you been honey"!  Well, "I've been to Ho Thi Laus" of course, which was probably true. On their way there or back the guys would pop in to see Ho Thi Lau for a minute and say, "I've been having headaches or backaches.” She would dutifully sell them a few aspirins and when the wife came by with the kids a week or so later, Ho Thi Lau could legitimately give cover to the husbands if necessary.

Still, how did the connection with hooky lau come about you ask? One day, two or three years earlier these same two VNAF Sergeants had encountered another crew of Airmen from the Darlac Hotel on their way to the Cat Houses. They had shouted out to the Airmen, "Hey are you guys going to see Ho Thi Lau"?  You guessed it -- one of the Airmen was from Hawaii and in his state of inebriation he heard "hooky lau" instead of "Ho Thi Lau" and immediately started singing the hooky lau song. Then he led a parade of drunk Airmen into one of the Hotels singing the hooky lau song and doing the Hula. After all, they were going to a party!

After that, the Hotels were forever, known as "HOOKY LAUs" by the local Air Force contingent from Pyramid Control.

And that my Brothers is the plain truth ... "no crap!"

Later,

Channler Drawdy SSgt
Pyramid ’68 -’69
Scope Dope & Pyramid 13