Hashing and splashing around HCMC

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"Welcome to hash number 903," a tall Frenchman bellowed at a crowd of 55 people of assorted nationalities.

With little further ado and a short burst from a bugle, the hash was off.

The runners surged forward first, releasing the pent-up excitement that had been building since they boarded the hash bus an hour earlier.

The walkers, a much calmer group, milled around for a while before someone took the lead by marching off down a narrow country laneway.

Earlier that Sunday, teams of "hares" from the Saigon Hash House Harriers had carefully laid out a 10-kilometer running course and an eight-kilometer walking course through jasmine and rau muong (water spinach) fields in HCMC's District 12, near the Phu Long bridge.

Hashing is an international phenomenon, with chapters, or "kennels" found in just about every country.

Jokingly referred to as a club for "drinkers with a running problem," hashes are usually social groups that organize non-competitive runs vaguely based on the English tradition of a paper chase.

Runners must follow a trail of paper, often scouting around in several directions before locating the right route.

Once "on" the correct trail, runners let loose with their distinctive cry of "on-on."

The paper markers are designed to keep the group together.

The faster runners search for the right way while the slower runners catch up.

On the Saigon hash the walkers just seem to follow the person in front, hoping that they are following a hare, or at least someone who is paying attention.

Often the walkers must make way for the runners, who come crashing out of the undergrowth, red and sweaty, and thunder past, proudly athletic.

The two groups converge briefly at a mid-point water stop and again at the end-point beer and water stop.

HASHING IN VIETNAM

Saigon Hash House Harriers
Run Day: Sundays
Time: Bus departs 2:30 p.m. from the Caravelle Hotel,
19 Lam Son Square, District 1
Website: htp:/www.saigonh3.com

Vung Tau Hash House Harriers
Run day: Every other Saturday
Time: 3 p.m.
Meeting point: Purple Night Bar (Front Beach)

Hanoi Hash House Harriers
Run day: Saturday
Time: 4 p.m. in summer, 3 p.m. in winter
Meeting point: Bus leaves one hour before the run from Hotel Sofitel Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen Street

The weekly hash, held in different locations around HCMC, attracts many types, with friends, children and even dogs welcomed.

On this particularly Sunday, at the hash marking Saint David's Day, there were people from Malaysia, Singapore, England, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, the US, Thailand and Vietnam.

"I met a guy in a bar last night and he said "˜come do the hash tomorrow,'" said Nancy Bernstein, a tourist from Phoenix, Arizona.

"And then he wasn't here today!"

Like many others, Angela Haworth, who had just arrived in HCMC with her husband Richard, regarded the hash as a great way to meet people while seeing some of the countryside.

Angela, a Brit who moved to Vietnam from Malaysia, said she regularly ran hashes in Kuala Lumpur (KL), the home of the hash.

"In KL they do hashes every day of the week," she said.

According to hash history, as recorded by Wikipedia, the first hashes were organized in KL in 1938 by a group of British colonial officers and expats.

They would organize a run on Monday evenings in a bid to work off their weekend excesses.

Hashing became popularized in the 1970s and for some hashers, it's now a way of life.

Michael Sanders, an Australian geophysicist who works in HCMC for a multinational oil company, said he makes a point of regularly taking a break from work to do a hash.

Sanders has run hashes in Beijing, where he used to work, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

"That's the great thing about the hash," he said.

"Everywhere you go you can just look up a hash. It's the same type of people wherever you go, a very elite group."

A hash usually ends with a "hash circle," where people new to the hash, known as "virgins," are introduced to the group through a "down-down" (drinking a mug of beer) and a ribald song.

Regular hashers have a hash name, usually sexually explicit.

The tamer hash names of the Saigon Hash include Bog Roll, Mad Cow, Slime, Deaf Teapot and Woofta.

The hash circle includes many "down-downs," songs and various strange "charges" against hash members.

Offenders are sent to sit on a block of ice while their transgressions are listed.

Oh, and then they have to drink more beer.

After the strange hash rituals are complete, a team of efficient hash helpers transfers the beer back onto the bus, the dirty, smelly hashers pile in and the whole lot starts heading back to HCMC.

From the bus the hashers split into two groups.

The more sensible group heads home while the wilder ones go to an "on-on" for dinner and more drinking.

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