Two foreigners and their Vietnamese teammates go head to head in a reality show with a surprise ending. By Lien Hoang.
At one point, it was herding ducks. At another, it was enlisting strangers for a tug-of-war. But the hardest part was pulling two snakes from a cage and cleaning them off.
“The first one was obedient but the second one was an asshole, the one who bit me,” said Aditi Deonarine, a Canadian expat who will appear in a Vietnamese reality show that puts contestants through grueling tasks, mostly in the countryside.
She called the show a Vietnamese take on America’s The Amazing Race, because her team of two had to dash in and around Ca Mau, at the southernmost point of Vietnam, completing challenges to earn points against another team of two. The prize was VND 50 million.
But producers said the program was based on one in Japan that pairs up players to see how well they work together. It translates as Perfect Companions, while the Vietnamese version is called Ban Duong Hop Y.
Deonarine, 25, ended up with a swollen, blue hand thanks to Snake Number Two. “I think he was pissed we woke him up,” she said. Though the venom sent a warm, numbing rush through her blood, she ultimately did not have to go to the hospital.
She and her partner, Le Hoang Phi, went up against another expat-Vietnamese duo, Nguyen Lan Phuong and American William. Their weeklong adventure in Ca Mau will make up one out of six episodes in the series, each of which features different pairings. The idea is to couple diverse foreigners — Deonarine, who was born in Trinidad, said her brown skin probably helped — with famous Vietnamese. Phi is an MC and Lan Phuong is an actress.
“I was impressed by the depth of the challenges,” William, 23, said. “It was sort of this great array that let you experience facets of daily life in the Mekong Delta that you couldn’t experience yourself.”
For most of the week, the rivals dealt with separate but similar assignments. For Lan Phuong and William, that meant making a knife or catching crabs by hand, while their opponents made pottery or used hammers and picks to scrape oysters off a rock wall.
William, who is from New York, writes for several Vietnamese newspapers — in Vietnamese. Deonarine, on the other hand, has trouble pronouncing her address in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Me and William talked so much, because we can speak two languages, and the other team didn’t say anything,” Lan Phuong, 29, said. “But that could be an advantage for them, they could focus more on the challenge.”
Phi doesn’t speak much English, so Deonarine thought they stood no chance against their bilingual adversaries, especially after losing the first round. In one of the few events when the two teams competed against each other, face to face, Phi and Deonarine dropped the bucket that they had to fill with water, using leaves as shovels.
“We thought, ‘We’re doomed’,” she said.
But they did find ways to work together. The pottery challenge required them to sculpt 10 pots in 30 minutes, but Deonarine’s creations kept falling apart. So they split up the work; she was good at laying out the rectangles of clay, and Phi was good at spinning them on the potter’s wheel.
Lan Phuong and William depended on each other, too. She stepped in when his height made it awkward and difficult during the knife-making challenge. He typically stepped in when she was too scared to go on.
“For me, I have a lot of fear, phobia of everything, of snakes, worms, and all kinds of things,” she said. When they had to wade through dirty water, more than once, she hesitated. “I don’t know what’s inside the mud or the water. At first I think, ‘No, no, I can’t do it.’ But he said, ‘I hold your hand, it’s OK.’”
So she did it. “After the show my leg had lots of, thousands of cuts,” she said.
Producers recruited Lan Phuong, in part, because seeing a beautiful actress do dirty work makes for good television. But participants also were selected for their energy and willingness to discover new things.
In one competition, they were given VND 200,000 to get a dramatic makeover at a hair salon. In another, they paddled through swamp water to collect ducks into a pen. The crew “were just laughing because I kept jumping in the water,” Deonarine said. She would gather five at a time, only to be pecked and lose one.
“I was surprised because they all were competitive, they really fought to win,” said Vu Thuy Dung, an editor on the show, produced by MCV.
She also said MCV, which has an office in Tokyo, chose Ca Mau to introduce the players to some of Vietnam’s picturesque landscapes. Other episodes take place elsewhere around the country, but every foreigner leaves the show with renewed love for Vietnam, Dung said.
Ban Duong Hop Y, which premiered in December, airs Sundays at 10pm on HTV7. The episode starring William, Deonarine, and their teammates will run in February.