THE HOTEL
by Jim Tolbert

I came down the stairs one morning and there it was. A crude, somewhat cryptic, little sign with big white letters:

Gold and Silver if you have,
You can keep for manager,
That to loose in your room,
Who to indemnify my Hotel,
No understand please.

It hung there on the wall at the foot of the stairs, over that area where the old Papa San washed the towels. Madam Kim and two of the girls were sitting on a mat below the sign, next to the wash rack, eating. "What's with the sign?", I ask, pointing to the wall, and looking at Mama San.

"Him no pay no can stay. Number ten GI. Him number hucking ten". Then she went into her story as if playing charades. She pulled her hair with one hand, beat her chest with the other, and all the while, spitting beatlenut juice and rice. I fully expected her to choke or strangle if she didn't stop talking, eating or chewing that damn beatlenut. She didn't stop either, so I backed up a step, and listened to her story.

She was having a running gun battle with one-eyed Billy Gatens, one of Delta's radio operators. He had spent the night, hung his necklace on the mosquito bar, and the Co he was with stole it. When Billy discovered his gold chain missing, all hell flew into him. He came charging down the stairs and confronted Mama San and all the girls, who were lounging around the charcoal cooking breakfast. He grabbed the girl he was with, and ripped off one of her necklaces. Mama San said he was Dinky Dow. Then he jumped into the middle of the charcoal fire cussing and kicking. Cooking pots, pans, and bowls flew in every direction, and five screaming whores un-assed the place.

Mama San went on with her story. She had stopped eating now and was really into it. One of the girls who could read and write some English had made this sign, and now everyone was being put on notice. She would not be responsible for anything you lost in your room. To my knowledge, no one had ever lost anything before this incident, and the old Korean's wife was making sure it didn't happen again.

The Kim Song Hotel was a whore house. It didn't start out that way but that's what it became. I found the place one Sunday afternoon when sifting thru the sights of downtown Nha Trang. It was just around the corner from Marie Kim's, on the Pho Dung Pho, which means side street in Vietnamese. I had been putting away a few at Marie's, and became bored with the inactivity. Things were so quiet in Nha Trang, and my little section of the war seemed so distant, it could have been Cancun Mexico.


Marie Kim's in downtown Nha Trang

I first noticed the electronics in the single window of this small two story stucco. It sparked my interest because that's what I trained on for so many years. The owner, who was Korean, caught me looking, and came running up to make a sale. I really didn't want to buy anything, just talk shop with a fellow radio man, but this guy wouldn't give up. Before I could get away, he had commanded someone bring up a table and two chairs, and from out of nowhere, cold beer. That was my first taste of Ba-mua-ba, 33. Some folks said it had formaldehyde in it. I don't know, but I sure got embalmed that day.

We drank away the afternoon and talked; This Korean opportunist, who had come to Vietnam seeking his fortune, and a homesick GI, who would rather be any place but here. It was the first break I'd had since getting to Vietnam and I was thoroughly enjoying it. My unit was still on operation in I Corps, I was on my first 7 day in country R&R, and it was 1967.

No matter what we talked about that day, the Korean would interrupt, and ask if he could get me anything. In the beginning it was annoying, but by the time I was shit faced, I kinda liked it. He had become as pushy as the girls I left selling Tea at Marie Kim's. He wanted to make money, and do it right now, and had already concluded that anything the market could stand was ok. And right now, I was the only market he had.

"What this war needs is more pussy and booze", I said. Like all male conversations, ours had already turned to sex, and I was about to convince Papa San that what he needed was a whore house.

I guess it was his never give up attitude, coupled with that Southeast Asian greed that caused him to accept my suggestion so quickly. "GIs will pay", I continued. "Just look at me, you already got one horny son of a bitch sitting here buying drinks". The old Korean and I became good friends. I think of him now as old, but in fact, we were about the same age.

His first girls were local, right out of the Nha Trang area, untrained, and right off the farm-rice paddy as it were. Later, as his business picked up, he started bringing the professionals up from Saigon. Along with these girls came the trouble. Petty theft between them, an occasional case of the clap, and fighting between the girls became more frequent. One of those pros almost broke up his marriage when her belly got big, and she talked too much. I saved his ass in the interim by convincing Mama San it was mine, only to loose face when it was born Korean. By then, his wife had calmed down, and only ran off the girl.

Initially, the Kim Song Hotel was exclusively a Delta Project establishment. It was their own private whore house, and a home away from home for many. I had carried the word back to Ahn Hoa, along with some pictures, and that's all it took. When the operation in I Corps ended, it resumed at the Kim Song. By that time, Papa San and his quaint little whore house were both up and running.

For the next year or so, on every standdown, you could always find project personnel down there kicking back. It was where they unloaded, in more ways than one. Unwinding from an operation usually consisted of excess eating, excess drinking, and excess; well, you know the rest. And there was always that support group thing, where the recon team members sat around getting shit faced, and talking about their last time in the hole. For the non-operatives, this didn't take on much significance, but recon tolerated us anyway.

One Sunday afternoon, Gephard, Dobbins, and myself were lying out on the small balcony at the Kim Song, watching the street scene below, and eating some of those oversized shrimp Mama San had burnt on the charcoal. The bay of Nha Trang produced some of the biggest shrimp I'd ever seen, and the Vietnamese knew what to do with them. Somewhere down the street a radio was playing. It was tuned to AFN, and the singer was exclaiming, "It's such a pretty world today, look at the sunshine, look at the sunshine", and the sound floated in along with the smell of fermenting Nouc Mam.

Swoosh, swoosh, came the noise, followed by a hysterical scream. And three bad assed green berets almost killed each other trying to get off that balcony, and back inside through one door at the same time. The screaming continued, followed by another swoosh-swoosh, and then came the laughter. It was coming from somewhere down stairs, but we didn't go down to see what was taking place. The screaming girl met us on the stairs with nothing on but a frightened look. She came up three at a time, and right behind her was George Pruitt with a fire extinguisher, stoned out of his mind, and laughing his ass off. "It's such a pretty world today, look at the sunshine".

Robinette said to me once, "Jim, if you take two green hornets, and one dexi, you can go all night". Most of us had a pill kit which contained some 27 different pills, to include these two which were in the speed category. And like a dumb ass, I tried it once. I couldn't get down off the ceiling long enough to even talk to a girl, let alone go anywhere. George Pruitt was having that same problem. He had popped a couple of hornets along with a dexi, drank all afternoon, and was still on the ceiling.

It takes a great deal to stop a Green Beret once he's on a mission. It took three of us just to hold George. I don't know what his mission was that day. Maybe it was to cool off the whore so he could handle it or maybe he was just playing fireman. But it took a lot of doing to get that extinguisher and calm him down. We quieted the girl down too, with the price of a short time, and the promise to hold Pruitt.

One evening during the monsoon season, when the whole world was off limits, and everyone waited for an expected VC attack, Pruitt and I were hiding out at the Hotel. We thought we were the only Americans in town until Papa San knocked on our door and told us there was a crazy American wanting to get inside. They always locked the doors late at night and didn't open them again until morning. When we opened the door, there stood a young skinny American with horn rim glasses. He was dressed in black pajamas, and was wearing one of those conical hats. He looked like a big VC who had bleached out. SP4 Joe Walker, newly assigned to the project, had just arrived in a Cycle-lo. "Damn, this guy's got balls. How'd he get through all those roadblocks? I want him on my team", George said.

There were many places in Nha Trang where SF hung out, the Streamer Bar, Marie Kim's, the Nautique, and others. But there was only one Kim Song Hotel. It was Delta's unofficial safe house for 1967-68. A halfway house for project personnel, somewhere between the war and home. And it was staffed with the world's best therapists, both physical and psychological. Many Delta marriages probably owe their survival, and subsequent longevity, to the little whore house on the Pho Dung Pho, And that may have been my greatest contribution to the war effort.

For every one who found his way to the Kim Song Hotel, there was at least one story. For every girl who worked there, there were as many stories as customers. Some knew some, but the whores knew all. I can only remember a fraction, and here I've told a couple. "It's such a pretty world today, look at the sunshine".
 

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