With names like Sore Arse, Cunning Linguist and Donald Tramp, they’re quite the motley crew. The group, members of an international “drinking club with a running problem” called the Hash House Harriers, gathers once a week across Vietnam to run, walk and discover their way across Vietnam’s countryside. They follow pre-set trails of flour or shredded paper laid by “hares” and only make one pit stop, as long as they can find the hidden beer.
The Hanoi chapter of Hash House Harriers will celebrate its 25th anniversary this October with a three-day hashing extravaganza outside of the city. Items on the agenda that weekend include a pub-crawl Friday night and party Saturday night, culminating in a “6:00 Sunday: get rid of hangover (not included in run fees)”.
The Saigon chapter was established back in August 1990, as legend goes, by three drunken expats in a pub. They took it upon themselves to set the first run and spread the news word-of-mouth. Now, 26 years and 1,346 odd runs later, the Saigon Hash is still jogging, sweating and drinking their way around the Southern Vietnamese countryside.
Hashing is part scavenger hunt, part run (or walk, if you’d prefer that) and part banter-filled drink fest. This killer combination makes for a tight-knit community that you can trace across the world. The beauty is that you can travel from Vietnam to Vienna to Antarctica, and still be able to find a Hash to keep your Sunday routine.
Hashing started in Malaysia expat community in the late 1930s as a motivational way to get them out of the city once a week and exercising. Hashing started its global takeover in the 1960s, and today most Hashes cater to local residents as well as expats.
The concept is for two “hares” to visit the site in advance and lay a trail, which typically winds through wooded areas, rice paddies and small neighborhoods. Fake, dead-end trails force the frontrunners (or fast running bastards) to double back, giving the group’s slower movers a chance to catch up. Hares can spend up to 10 hours the week before a Hash prepping the trail, and even then you can never quite predict what will happen the day of the run.
Group members call each other by their “hash names”, playful and typically raunchy noms de guerre that are earned after racking up at least a half-dozen runs. Birth names are taboo, and members’ occupations and backgrounds are unimportant details.
For a group that takes pride in its rituals and formalities, however debauched they may be, the group isn’t exactly a secret society. It welcomes people of all ages and levels of fitness, and has a large group of walkers. That marks a departure from the original spirit of the Hanoi group, which was more of an “in-crowd”, according to the group’s longest-running member, “Van Dyke”, of the Netherlands.
“Rule number one, there’s no rules,” he says. “Rule number two, which we don’t have, is that everybody’s equal. We’ve been running with ambassadors, but you can still ‘charge’ them for stupid offenses or whatever. Nobody’s better than somebody else.”
Perhaps there are no rules, but there are punishable offences outlined by “hash lore”. One is to avoid wearing new shoes, or you’ll be forced to chug beer out of them. Members must always wear hash-themed T-shirts and call members by their hash names if they’ve already been “baptised” by the group’s “religious advisor”, who conducts rituals and inaugurates new members.
A breach of the code can land you a “down down” — an order to down a cup or can of beer, or worse yet: having to sit on ice.
“Ice, ice, ice!” members chant at the “hare”, a young Vietnamese woman who had marked the trail earlier and, after forgetting where she had dropped the next splotch of flour, got the walkers stuck in a maze-like neighbourhood cordoned off by identical brick walls.
The group’s “newly-erected” grandmaster “Rambo”, who hails from the US, is charged with “mismanaging” the group. He said they rarely run into problems, except for a recent weekend in Dong Hoi during one of their biannual extended trips. The police ordered them to stop running, so instead they toured caves and drank more beer.
“Sometimes the locals get a little bit ticked off when you’re going through their area, but that’s rare. Most of them just think we’re a bunch of silly foreigners running around,” he says, paying no mind to the small group of locals who have gathered to watch.
On average, about 40 people attend each hash, which is held outside of Hanoi in the countryside. One Australian hasher known as “Madame Lash” was visiting Vietnam with her husband, “Flasher”, and they opted to join the Hanoi group one sunny Saturday.
She said their first port of call in any country is to check for a local hashing club. As a former expat in Bali, she has hashed all over Asia, Canada and New Zealand for 28 years.
“You see so much more of the countryside than you do as a tourist,” she says. “You get to meet expats, locals, while you’re there. It’s just a great way to get in and socialise.”
In a million years, I would never consider myself a runner. There are many activities, cardiovascular or not, that I would rather do than go for a run. It wasn’t until five minutes into the hash, stumbling along in the 35-degree heat in Dong Nai province, that I realized what I’d gotten myself into.
The day was hot on my skin even though it was 4pm and although most of the heat had started to leave the sunlight; the sweat wouldn’t stop rolling in big fat beads down my arms and forehead. “On on!” rippled the cries of the front-running bastards who lead us through fish farms, sandy paths, muddy ditches, and cool forest.
There are people who willingly come out and do this every Sunday, for the love of running, adventure, and the banter that comes with the chaotically disorganised Hash House Harriers. The Saigon hashers were nice enough to let me come and attempt to run along with them on their 1,346th run.
When I met up with Sijtze “Shithouse’”, the grandmaster of Saigon Hash, three days before my first hash, he was kind enough to help me through the somewhat complex web of understanding what goes down every Sunday.
Firstly, at least in the Saigon chapter, every hasher is given a name after their 10th run to show commitment to the crew, or once they do something so fantastically stupid, that they have deserved their name prematurely. “You’re not meant to like your hash name, nor be proud of it, and you certainly should never ask for a new one,” explains Shithouse. “As the other hashers will deliberately make it worse than it was before.”
For this particular hash the bus was packed with 50 hashers, to the point were the latecomers were forced to stand or sit on Bui Vien-style red stools. The group riding out to Dong Nai was comprised equally of men and women, and a balance of local runners and expats, with some hashers claiming years of experience, and others only weeks.
The hash offers a 50 percent discount on the day’s fees for local runners, which offers a great incentive for them to join the community, get some exercise, and make some friends, remarked walking hare “In-Flight Service”.
“Meatsickle”, otherwise known as Alex in the non-hash world, who set the trail for the 1,346th run, commented on the benefits of the group that everyone seems to enjoy: “It gets the blood moving, you get out of the city, and you meet people who share the energy.”
Hashing cannot be discussed without talking about the hash circle; a review of the day’s trail (which is never spoken about favourably), specific charges for runners, and general social charges. For example “White Boy Sotong” charged all British women and Vietnamese men to drink a beer on behalf of the British entrepreneur who mistook a 46-year-old Vietnamese man for a child. The charges consist of sitting on ice, drinking beer, singing songs of a profane nature, and general group bonding.
Ultimately, hashing is a non-competitive everyman’s sport revolving around a community of running, drinking, and cheeky laughs with some equally sweaty friends. No matter where a hasher goes, they won’t be far away from a like-minded group.