It was a particularly misty morning in Hanoi, blanketed by the kind of gloom that ignites beach lust; especially, when in the promised land of perpetual sunshine. Fortunately, the beautiful city of Hanoi is the gateway to an array of stunning beaches in the Gulf of Tonkin. Deterred by the notoriety of Ha Long Bay's overdone party scene, I decided to veer off the circuit towards Cat Ba and discovered a whole other rock climbing side of Vietnam.
Less than five hours away from Hanoi's Luong Yen Bus Station, the island of Cat Ba falls within the domain of a National Park. But even as I walked out of the bus and looked out into the beautiful bay, the cloudy chill surrounding me was ominous. Stunning as it was, the beach was damp with an afternoon fog and the water appeared calm, yet completely uninviting. I turned around and tucked amongst the stretch of sea-facing budget hotels, was a hand-written sign for a rock climbing school. Voila!
Endowed with a stunning landscape of limestone karsts towering over an azure sea, Cat Ba has become a gathering ground for rock climbers from around the world, who've set up an economy that supports enthusiasts of all levels of interest and experience in climbing. And for the advanced climber, the island is a Mecca for Deep Water Soloing.
One of the great joys in the life of a traveller is to indulge in the adventures of others, albeit briefly. It was just after 6 AM on another misty morning, and we had set -off on a boat to a tiny uninhabited island for a day of climbing. The boat soon slowed down to a stop, and a girl jumped off a dinghy into our boat. She was soaking wet, clutching a towel wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Despite her shivery state, she looked jubilant as she introduced herself. She'd just jumped off a cliff into the chilly sea, after climbing onto it in the wee hours of dawn. Deep Water Soloing is an extreme form of free solo rock climbing on sea cliffs, where without the assistance of climbing gear, the climbers rely on the water to protect them against injury, in case they fall. As for the descent, a jump into the deep water is a major highlight. For experienced climbers, there is nothing better than diving into the depths of the sea, from the height of their latest conquest. The girl who'd just climbed into the boat had just set a personal record, and she was ecstatic. Rock Climbing in Cat Ba is amongst the best in the region, attracting some of the most passionate climbers from around the world. It is an intimidating sport, but even as a beginner you get to climb with some of the best.
For a real insight into climbing, start with a three-day course. This will give you enough time to cultivate skills and make noticeable progress. This is also just enough time to decide whether climbing is your cup of tea. But if you are just after a little taste, you can go for a half-day climbing session, followed by an optional solo kayaking trip in the bay. If you decide to go for the three-day route, be prepared for the early days and expect to be sore by the evening-time.
A Beginner's First Day
By 7 AM, we were at our designated spot, a deserted beach in the middle of the gulf. While the climbing instructors wasted no time setting up the ropes and carabiners, I looked around to appreciate the unspoilt view. Vietnam is breathtaking. If you've never been, book your tickets now. Within fifteen minutes, one of the instructors was on the top of the cliff, while another was dangling halfway enroute. They climbed with the agility of an acrobat, which made it look so easy. But of course, it wasn't. The first introductory climb went really well. I made it to the top without even breaking into a sweat. I looked down into the sea with confidence and pride. As I was belayed down by the competent, trustworthy instructors, I felt invincible and completely oblivious to the challenge awaiting me on the next climb. I waited patiently for my turn, cheering on fellow amateurs attempting the Level 2 climb. The sense of confidence started to dissipate as I watched people dangle dangerously, kicking their legs in frantic anticipation as they struggled to find a dependable ledge. Despite being strapped safely on to a sturdy harness, the fear of falling was evident in their slow, cautious steps. We cheered appreciatively as, one by one, the climbers fell off the cliff, inches before they reached the top. I wondered sceptically if I could make it.
And of course, I didn't. I later learned that one of the most important skills of a climber is a defiantly positive attitude in the face of danger. Within minutes into my climb, my brow was lined with drops of stress and fear. With every leg up, I lost my sense of purpose inch by inch. I tried to remind myself that I was in safe hands, but as I looked below at the supportive faces of the instructors and fellow climbers, they looked distant and small. I soldiered on for as long as I could, till I was out of breath and seemingly out of options. I found myself facing a flat cliff with nothing to grab on to. I could hear shouts and suggestions from the instructor from below, but they sounded muffled by my own fears and exhaustion.
Before I decided to give up, I looked up at the summit and decided it was a long shot. But as soon as I was belayed safely onto the beach, I looked up and saw just how close I had been to the top. A few more brave grabs and I would have made it. Too late, but lesson learned.
On the way back, the boat stopped and anchored by a cliff to pick up two more deep water soloists. We applauded as they jumped into the water together from the top of a cliff and then welcomed them aboard with warm cups of green tea and towels. Suddenly, the frigid sea didn't feel so uninviting anymore. Pumped up from our climbs, we jumped into the deep blue sea to cool off. We swam around the waters, surrounded by towering rocks that were asking to be climbed. I'd never look at a cliff the same way again. What's your favourite Vietnam story? Share your comments below!