Sunday in the Saigon Countryside

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For those wishing to escape Saigon on a Sunday, the Saigon Hash House Harriers provides a unique opportunity to leave town, see the countryside and both burn off calories and add a few through a cold beer or two.

Billing itself as a "drinking club with a running problem", the Hash has its origins in Kuala Lumpur in the 1930's and was founded as a way for British soldiers to get some exercise. The original name came from the Selangor Club, also known as the Hash House. It is an international organization (if "˜organization' is the right word), with hashers around the globe.

Every Sunday at 2 p.m. from the Caravelle Hotel, a group of expats and locals board a bus that takes them to a destination outside the city. The destination, known only to the "hare", a euphemism for the organizer of the day's festivities, is somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside, visually and atmospherically far removed from Saigon. The task of the hare is to lay out a route for the runners and walkers to follow by marking it with strips of shredded paper. While this sounds easy, the trail also has a series of checkpoints and false trails that confound even the quickest and most clever runner.

Some hashers are hardcore, claiming dozens if not hundreds of these outings. Others are newbies, dubbed "virgins", occasional hashers or visiting hashers from out of the country. On the several hashes I attended, the crowds varied. There is always a core of expats (judging by accent, temperament and capacity for libations they are largely Australian and Irish), but with growing numbers of Vietnamese women and the occasional man. Some are hardcore runners but the leisurely walker finds a trail suitable for their abilities as well.

The hash is not a race but the runners do proceed at a brisk pace along the trail, over country roads and through the landscape of Vietnam. On trips to Bien Hoa, Long An and other destinations, we ran through rice paddies (indulged by the locals), balanced on monkey bridges, climbed hills and jogged by newly built pagodas and ageless thatched huts. In one hash, people of all ages lined the streets and laughed and waved at the spectacle of barely clad joggers struggling down a dirt road through their community.

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The countryside an hour from Saigon is a different world. No one asks if we want a massage, postcards or motorbike rides.  There are neither beggars with hands extended nor offers of shoe shines (not that our sneakers couldn't have benefited from a good washing!)

Birds welcome us at many junctures, along with tenacious ants and the occasional mosquito, and you haven't lived until running through the mud past herds of water buffalo where women tend to crops, wearing the iconic conical hat and expressionless face in the midday sun.

Invariably there are false trails, and everyone gets lost but makes it back to the bus for beer and juvenile frivolity. Some of it is risqué and vulgar but all meant in good fun. Under the guidance of a headmaster and spiritual advisor donning outlandish costume, "charges" are leveled against wrongdoers, real or imagined. The offense could be as simple as violating hash protocol like wearing sunglasses, having your hands in your pants or talking in the circle.

Other charges are made up on the spot such as the crime of being American or, for women, adjusting a bra on the run. Punishment includes being forced to sit on the ice or drink beer, both refreshing in the tropical heat. 

Songs are sung, the lyrics of which one cannot print in a family newspaper. Virgin runners are particularly lambasted and I won't describe the line of inquiry they are subjected to. Suffice it to say there is always an element of sexual innuendo as well as political incorrectness to the hash.

And, as the bugs begin to bite and the sun sets and darkness falls, the hashers are back on the bus, sweaty and exhausted from a Sunday with the hash in Saigon. The cost of attending is US$10 and less for Vietnamese, making it a bargain for an outing that includes camaraderie, exercise, comedy and beer.

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