Am I going to die? My hands and feet tingle sharply as I peer over the edge of the roof to the ground 20 metres below. A man resembling my mechanic back in Saigon straps me into ill-fitting safety gear, the only foreigner-sized set available. He attaches me to the abseiling rope and gives rapid instructions in Vietnamese that I don’t completely understand. I worry the rope won’t hold my weight, but there is only one way to find out.
Before my leap of faith, the cameraman zooms in on my strained face, “Super so,” I utter under my breath, “Super scared.”
Mimi squints and strains her neck to see me at the top of My Dinh Stadium during the opening challenge on this first day of The Amazing Race Vietnam. I jump, she screams, and the rope holds. Exhilarated, I enjoy the panoramic view of Hanoi during my slow descent, the only peaceful moment I will have on this day.
The rest of the afternoon we battle the viscous Hanoi heat on a high-speed scavenger hunt around the Old Quarter. The stress of running around the narrow, shop-lined streets makes us both tired and irritable. With a goofy smile, I attempt to lift spirits with our pre-arranged codeword “watermelon”, a reminder to smile for the camera.
Mimi doesn't smile. “C’mon, watermelon!” I urge again. She doesn’t respond, but the exhausted, semi-crazed, Samuel L Jackson-esque look in her eye dares me, “Say watermelon one more time and…”
Get Ready, Set, Go
Two weeks earlier, Mimi, a K-pop loving, bubble-tea drinking, university senior, had never heard of The Amazing Race. “There are 10 teams of two. Every episode is a leg of the race filmed in a different location around Vietnam where we will complete challenges and search for clues to get to the finish line.”
I explained in my best Vietnamese.
“The team who comes in last each leg gets eliminated. The winner at the end gets VND300 million.”
Going into the race, I knew Mimi wasn’t an athlete, but I didn’t think she would end up in the emergency room on day one. We had just finished the scavenger hunt and were sprinting to the finish line when Mimi collapsed with 20 metres to go. As I gallantly carried her the rest of the way, I wondered what music they would play when they showed this on TV.
When she is unable to stand up on the finishing mat, we are rushed to the hospital. She remains unconscious for two long hours while she is given fluids intravenously. Later that night, after further examination and x-rays, the doctors release her with a clean bill of health, just a little heat stroke. At this point I am worried for Mimi’s health and want to quit the race, but Mimi is adamant we continue. In the end, we decide to race on, but after that something changes in both of us. Winning is no longer a priority.
Keep On, Keeping On
The second leg is harder than the first, but we make it a point to take frequent breaks. When we have to carry a bucket of water up the steep face of Song Da, Southeast Asia’s largest dam, we stop to breathe in the view of the lake below. While hiking up the Hoa Binh Mountains in search of the ‘Jungle of haunted rock tombs’, we laugh so hard the crisp air stings our nostrils. Even when I have to shovel pungent manure as part of a farming challenge, I joke with the colourfully dressed Muong farmer lady.
At the beginning of the third leg, I am blindfolded and ushered into a fenced area where I must catch a goat. Covered in mud, I hold out my arms like a milk chocolate zombie following cues from Mimi.
“JUMP!” Mimi shrieks.
I fly through the air and successfully catch the leg of Binh, a girl from another team, which causes the normally quiet production crew to burst into laughter. After a few more attempts, I am successful, and we receive instructions to find a boat at nearby Hoa Lu Lake. Rowing the boat across the lake was a struggle, but we finally reach the other side. We then climb the 214 steps to the top of Unicorn Mountain where we meet the world’s cutest child monk who asks us, “How many steps did you just climb?”
Unlike the American version, teams on the The Amazing Race Vietnam tend not to collaborate or make alliances. As we leave the lake I see another team, Heo and Bun, and tell them about the 214 steps. After this episode aired, one internet comment read, “Richie was caught cheating on TV.”
At the Finish Line
The fourth leg begins with a leisurely bicycle ride through a valley of rice paddies and water buffaloes. An hour later, green fields give way to dusty, mountain slopes. The sun burns away clouds and goes to work on my exposed skin. Over the next four hours, I try various tactics to push Mimi up hilly roads that never end. As the sun sets, we reach the entrance to Cuc Phuong National Park, which is guarded by thousands of friendly, white butterflies who chase me down the tree-lined road like a school of dolphins playing in the wake of a dive boat.
After cycling the 57 kilometres, I spend the final hour of my 15 minutes of fame spelunking the Cave of Prehistoric Man, conquering the maze in the Firefly forest, and giving a farewell kiss to a sleepy python. When host Dustin Nguyen tells us we’ve come in last place and are eliminated from the race, I have mixed emotions. Mostly, I am proud that we pushed through to the end without giving up. If we had gone home after the first leg, there’s no doubt I would have been disappointed. But we went on to enjoy three more exciting adventures, saw some beautiful parts of Vietnam, and made friends along the way. We gave our best and lost fair and square. I can’t imagine a more amazing experience.
For more info, visit www.cuocduakythu.vtv.vn/Home/Index.aspx
To view clips from the show, go to YouTube and type in The Amazing Race Vietnam.