Climbing on Cat Ba

I’ve often thought that “You are not special” is a terrible thing to say to someone as it trivialises the human experience. But staring up at 30 metres of raw Cat Ba Island mountain that you are expected to climb is a humbling experience — one that could make the most rock-strong of our bretheren feel a bit trivial or even unspecial.

My girlfriend and I hadn’t been climbing for very long (I started just four months ago), but the range of difficulties and the expertise of the guides working for Asia Outdoors really do — forgive the overused, dustbin of the advertising world phrase — offer “something for everyone”.


Our first morning was lazy enough: a kayak ride through Halong Bay, ducking under arches into hidden lagoons followed by a lunch of fish and mixed veg on the boat. The second half was spent on Moody Beach, a little fruit slice of sand that claims a wartime munitions bunker and five memorable climbs of varying degrees — ranging from a 45-degree hike that a German friend aptly described as “damn easy” to an overhang that half of the group chickened out on and left the author getting a face full of palm tree after an unsuccessful attempt at a heel hook. The night was spent on the roof of The Good Bar drinking Singapore Slings and looking up at a cat’s-eye marble of the moon, holding my girl and wondering what the next day would bring.


The Cat Ba Sling


The second day was a rise-and-shine day of deep-water soloing — free-climbing — in the bay. No equipment other than an old pair of shoes (which you should probably rent) is required. A basket boat rolls you up within reach of a free-standing rock and you climb until you feel your testes shrink up into your stomach. Then, turn and jump. You’ll definitely land in the water, but on the way down you’ll experience the three levels of falling wherein: (1) you’re cool with it — (2) you feel like you’ve been falling for a bit too long — (3) panic. Leave your sunglasses on the boat or they will be destroyed upon impact (this happened).


Ton Sai in Thailand is more famous for deep-water soloing in this region of the world, but having been to both I can promise you Cat Ba is at least twice as pretty. Keep an eye out to your right on the boat ride back as Cat Ba langurs (only 68 left in the world at last count) like to populate the rocks in that region.


The aptly named Butterfly Valley — a 20-minute motorbike ride from Cat Ba city — is the easiest place for experienced climbers (going with a trail guide) to venture out to. Again, climbs range from double bolts your grandma could do, to craggy, 5.12-grade faces that the guidebook suggests using “a series of acrobatic swings” to get to the top of. My favourite was the Roots, Rock, Reggae route, where the climber can go back and forth between the criss-crossing roots of an old tree and thick, palm-sized slabs of limestone. We spent two days there and it didn’t feel like anywhere near enough time.

Tiger Beach

Tiger Beach


The last day was spent deep-water soloing again in the morning followed by an afternoon on Tiger Beach, a party island that tourists in Hanoi pay US$180 (VND3.8 million) to get sailed out to so they can pay VND25,000 per beer and sleep on the sand. I’m not sure what the reasoning is, but the owners of this Bacchanalian venture thought it would be a good idea to set up two top ropes and allow drunks to climb the formidable rock walls that encircle the island. As you can guess, the results are hilarious.


Three hours hanging out by the wall yielded two girls bursting into tears and a stream of bros who looked like they had just stepped out of a chest wax advertisement, daring each other to take a turn. To see these guys later wearing a pair of skin-tight climbing shoes, harness and a tiny plastic helmet was priceless. Very few of them made it to the top, but those that did descended with the kind of glow that can only be attributed to climber’s high. They were hooked. My favourite was a kid — Ryan from Liverpool — whose buddies were floating in the water like drunken starfish and cat-calling him.


“Yer neva gonna make it, Ry. Jus’ come down now and save yerself the trouble.”


Ryan was clearly drunk when he signed on for this ascent, and the fact that his voice sounded like he could double for Tom Waits should he want a new career caused me to think that he had been drunk and having shouty conversations with his friends for several afternoons before this one.


“Come on down, ya slag.”


Ryan’s laugh had an uncomfortable timbre to it, like a stray dog with a meaty street bone, happy yet well-aware that someone may come up and take it from him. His climb was slow, but he made it to the top and gave the anchor a victory slap. Clearly losing focus, his descent was all swinging legs and spinning in dizzy circles. He held two fists up and yelled again when his feet hit the beach. I was standing right next to where he landed and he naturally just started talking to me.


“Bloody brilliant,” he said, his neck 180 degrees vertical as he contemplated the rock. “Just effing… brilliant.” One of his buddies shouted his name and he bounded back down the beach a slightly, it seemed, different person than he’d been before.


For more information on climbing tours to Cat Ba, go to Vietclimb ( also offer tours to both Cat Ba and further afield including Huu Lung near Lang Son and to various locations in Central Vietnam

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