Lauren Cameron gets dirty with the Saigon Hash.
As I waited on the side of the highway where it passed through District 2, I don’t know what I felt more nervous about: my chances of missing the bus, the prospect of being surrounded by a group of rowdy, boisterous, booze-loving Brits purported to be unforgiving to first-time-Hashers, or the run itself. Having recently spent time in hospital with dengue fever, my body was feeling anything but fit. But the prospect of the great outdoors, an escape from the city and an adventure was too good to pass up, and I eagerly jumped on the Saigon Hash House Harriers Bus as it pulled in to my stop.
An old British tradition that started in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1930s by a couple of bored colonial officers and expatriates hoping to sweat off a weekend of excess, Hashing has today become a worldwide social sport for expats and locals alike. With more than 2,000 chapters around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find a city that didn’t have an established Hash House Harrier club. Be it through the lush country parks of Hong Kong, the urban oasis of Sydney or the desert oil fields of the Middle East, this “drinking club with a running problem” offers brave participants a chance to meet new friends while taking part in a non-competitive adventure run through untouched countryside – more often than not with the aid of a little liquor. Men, women; fit or unfit, all are welcome at Ho Chi Minh City’s regular Sunday afternoon expedition for the mere sum of VND300,000, if one can brave the tomfoolery, slightly misogynistic camaraderie/somewhat nefarious sense of humour and initiation ceremony, that is.
After zooming north down the highway for an hour or so, we pulled into an unassuming village just outside of Long Khanh which I am certain I would never have set foot in otherwise. Already I was learning that the Hash offered so much more than a few hours of outdoor adventure and free beer, it’s a means of discovering otherwise unexplored parts of the countryside surrounding Ho Chi Minh.
We spilled off the bus outside of a church (which seemed ironic considering the nature of the club) and immediately the debauchery began. The Grand Master lay down the law and gave use some basic instructions for the run ahead. In short, we should aim not to get lost and if we did, our only real hope would be to find a villager who speaks English.
Should I have been worried? Perhaps. I narrowly escaped having to christen my new running shoes by drinking a beer from one of them, and once again it hit home that as a Hash House “virgin” I could be in a spot of trouble. Without further ado and with the blowing of the traditional Hash Horn we were off and away into the jungle, the sight of 30-odd bizarrely dressed, slightly aging runners a sight for locals to say the least.
As we darted through fields of dong plants (complicated work I might add, trying not to crush locals’ livelihoods while avoiding spider webs, ditches and keeping an eye out for snakes) in search of the coveted trail of flour set down by the Hares, I found myself jogging alongside a fellow Australian, who promptly introduced himself as Broken Seal. He was one of many who Hash regularly at home but also scouts out runs whenever travelling overseas.
“I take part whenever I can. It’s the best way to meet a fun crew while on holiday, and it opens you up to places you would never go otherwise; places no tour will ever take you,” he confessed as we jumped over ginger plants and scaled bamboo-clad slopes, trying to avoid coming into contact with angry red ants and leeches. He pointed out several of the other long-term Hashers around us with fondness: Jack-off, Sloe Gin, Thai-Me-Up, Phuc-My-Thu… Hash names, usually of the vulgar variety, are assigned to new members after they have either taken part in 10 Hash runs or set a trail. Publishing law forbids me to name the rest of the cohort that day, but you get the drift.
The next two hours passed in a whirlwind of sweat, confusion, false trails, plenty of laughter and plenty of antics. I found myself alone in the jungle on more than one occasion, only to be reconnected with the pack after hearing a distant horn sound or echoes of “on on!”, “checking” or “turtle-check”, which usually implied I was hopelessly lost and the others were waiting for me. I truly felt I had gone back in time and had found myself in an old English schoolboy game of Hares and Hounds, dashing through the forest, trying to trace a flour and paper trail through rivers, thick jungle and rice fields. It was liberating, exhausting and completely enjoyable.
At last we stumbled onto a village field where, much to my relief, our bus and getaway vehicle awaited us, surrounded by eskies filled to the brim with ice, soft drink and beer. There were stations set up offering hungry runners much-appreciated banh mi and mango, and after giving us some time to recoup the most amusing part of the day’s proceedings, in my opinion, began. I won’t give too much away; Hash etiquette forbids me from sharing intimate detail about the ritualistic events that take place in “the Circle” following each Hash run. All I will say is that large blocks of ice, beer and vocal energy were required in large quantities over that next hour, until we all boarded the bus and drove home, slightly tipsy.
I must admit, despite my initial hesitation about being a young, inexperienced Hasher I found the Saigon Hash House Harriers community to be nothing other than incredibly polite, warm and welcoming toward me. Throughout the entire experience I found myself surrounded by lifelong members who clearly adored the club and all it represented, and their enthusiasm was infectious! I jumped off the bus home that day shoeless, muddy and exhausted, but with a handful of new friends and the prospect of many other great Sundays ahead of me. I’ll be back for sure.
DETAILS || Every Sunday, meet 1.45pm outside the Caravelle Hotel in District 1. Bus departs 2pm sharp. VND300,000 including transport, run, beer and if you’re lucky, banh mi. www.saigonh3.com.