Mike Hutton and a team of budding explorers sail out into the deep blue waters of Ha Long Bay in search of virgin rock in a crazy sea of jungle infested limestone towers.
I can’t remember whether it was the James Bond Film “Tomorrow Never Dies” that inspired me to venture out into Vietnamese waters or had I just been watching too many episodes of Tomb Raider. None of this really mattered as my plane began its descent towards the city of Hanoi. I wasn’t alone though as I had spotted sailor man Sam in the duty-free shop back in Beijing. He sat with a book and big fat packet of tobacco and was on a mission to destroy as much rock as humanely possible. Me, well I had a big bag of cameras and the least experience of deep-water soloing as any one on the expedition. It’s true what someone once said to me as the plane doors opened. You will know when you’ve reached Asia by the smell. It’s hard to describe the scent; perhaps a combination of putrefied sweat, exotic herbs and diesel fumes all blended together. Either way it was the sign our adventure into the unknown had already begun.
The plan was to meet the team at the aptly named Hotel Rendezvous and yet I had absolutely no idea how to get there. Miraculously we boarded a taxi and managed to convince the driver of our intentions. Dodging the vast array of cyclists and make do vehicles we arrived in steamy Hanoi. Trawling the streets we witnessed a vibrant city so full of life since the government had embraced free-market reforms back in 1980.It wasn’t long before we had fallen to the temptation of the many street food stalls and soon we were immersing ourselves in the flavours of south east Asia and enjoying the local Bia Ha Noi (Hanoi beer). The adventure had only just begun and yet I felt we had experienced so much. At the crack of dawn when the city was sleeping, we began the intoxicating journey to the city of Hai Phong on the east coast. As the sun rose through the thick smog, people travelled to work on bikes carrying just about every kind of merchandise you could imagine and all frantically trying to dodge the cars and buses. Stopping for a break we sampled the local weasel shit coffee and found it hard to comprehend that the bean had passed through the weasels digestive system. I was sorry to leave behind the catacombs of crowded streets, the Buddhist pagodas and the smell of lemongrass, but as we boarded a high-speed boat to Cat Ba Island the excitement in my belly began to grow. Surfing the waves, it became apparent this was a very different world to the congested streets back in Hanoi. Evidence of heavy industry was all I could see in this bay of smog. Arriving at Cat Ba was like breath of fresh air with its tropical forest, mangrove, limestone karsts, lagoons and hidden caves. This was to be the point from where we would charter our boat on which we would stay for the next three weeks.
Ha Long translates to Descending Dragon in Sino-Vietnamese. Over beers in the Slo Pony climber’s bar a local sailor told us the Gods sent a family of dragons to help the Vietnamese protect their country. The dragons started to spit jewels and jade into the ocean. The jewels formed all the islands of rock that linked together to create a wall against the invaders. Powerful magic caused islands to bulge out of the sea and penetrate the enemy ships.
Listening to more tails we drunk beer into the hot sticky night and with the skipper’s ancient nautical map we planned our quest for un-climbed rock. Vast quantities of nourishment were purchased in order to lengthen our stay in the bay. It seemed we were to be treated like Kings with a dedicated skipper, chef and local climbing guru lad called Vu.
Life couldn’t be simpler or could it? There was the slim risk of attack by pirates and getting bitten by venomous sea snakes but this was acceptable given the rewards. It soon dawned upon me that it might not be possible to get down from these limestone monoliths that protruded from the ocean. Unless of course we were prepared to bush whack out from amongst the jungle vegetation that appeared to be covering many of them. I shuddered at the thought of being trapped on one of these things, too scared to jump!
The Journey begins
Early next morning we sat in a bar eating steaming noodle soup for breakfast as the rain lashed down on the corrugated iron roof. The kit was loaded aboard and soon we were sailing the serene waters like true explorers.
Leaving Cat Ba behind we entered a new world; One consisting of floating houses where 1600 people made a living by fishing the rich waters. Further out the volume of potentially un-climbed rock was over-whelming. I was told there were 1969 of these limestone towers, some of them being hollow with spectacular caves and grottos.
Soon we drifted into a normally sheltered lagoon that was home to the established Hawaii 50 wall. The anchor was lowered and the team were in the drink and desperate for some action. We indulged ourselves on the brilliant twenty-meter 6a traverse. Tufa galore with no obvious end in site to most of the routes. Luckily our pre-measured bamboo canes signified a depth of two metres, the depth into which a ten-metre plunge was passable. I’ve always found the psychology of throwing one’s self into the sea from great heights a challenge. Some of us may be naturals but it’s fascinating that even Olympic diver Thomas Dailey needed to see a psychologist prior to his ten metre jumps. Eventually like a group of school kids we were ushered back on board to feast on the creations of our on-board chef. The antics of the morning had gotten the better of me and since the swell was building at an alarming rate I was happy to just observe the action whilst popping copious amount of cyclazine. Heights of fifteen metres had been achieved with some impressive drops and this was day one!
Nodding off on the open deck to the sound of lapping water from the diminishing swell I drifted into a disturbing dream. Suddenly I was woken to the sound of something that resembled a croaking frog coming from the captain’s quarters. Flabbergasted as to how a frog could have gotten on board I searched for the culprit with no luck. I was traumatized to discover the noise was actually the captain who was grinding his teeth in his sleep. The storm had passed and we woke to perfect reflections of the surrounding crags in the glistening emerald waters. A small rowing boat was heading our way and to my amazement the old lady on board appeared to be the owner of a floating grocer’s shop. There was never a dull moment at sea and by the end of the week we had learned to expect the unlikely.
Sailing further out we approached the idyllic Tounge Tit Bay. According to Vu our resident climber this area had seen no climbers. Flutings of orange columns rose out of the lagoon, inter-dispersed with a greyer more friable rock. Sometimes the tufas rattled in a disturbing fashion and occasionally they broke in two. This was all part of the fun, but on the whole, we encountered perfect rock and great new lines. Very soon we had created sixteen new routes from 6a to 7b and were proud to have opened our first new venue. The day’s fun was soon to end as a near miss alerted us to the fact, we only had two metres of depth and tide was on the turn. The challenge on most evenings was choosing a practical sleeping area on which to spend the night. Rumours of police raiding boats in the night and issuing fines to those that slept in un-designated areas meant we were un-prepared to challenge the system. The level of corruption was high and we didn’t fancy our chances, particularly as they had been known to raid all alcohol on board as a substitute for Vietnamese Dong.
To avoid the croaking frog, I had chosen to sleep down below. Unfortunately, the rats had the same idea and taunted me in the night with their wanderings. As I dragged my weary body from its pit it became apparent, we were in for a choppy day. The captain had a look of un-ease on his usually happy face and it translated that we weren’t venturing too far from the shelter of the bay. To complicate things further I had very nearly vomited on my camera and fallen over-board from the crib boat. We had christened the new crag Un-employment wall but the swell was making landing impractical. Only Sam the Sailor with his superior sea legs was game enough for the battering. I requested to abort the mission and was swiftly abandoned on some desert island beach to save my wretched body of from its misery. The curse of the ocean was taking no prisoners as Sam was thrown towards razor sharp rock by a freak wave. In a matter of minutes, we had him on board for a round of steri-strip, antibiotics and whiskey.
Hang Ca Cave and Bond Bastic
By the end of the week the initial scepticism had transformed into a high-energy psyche. The force of the team had escalated to biblical levels and was in need of something greater to satisfy its urges. The group stumbled across a sports area developed by Lyn Hill and Todd skinner and going by the name Jules Verne but quickly dismissed it in favour of pastures new. We were about to embark on our first tufa cave bonanza when Vu Nguyen our little Ninja barefoot climber shocked us beyond belief by his courageous ascent of a new 7c which we duly named A Vu to a kill. Watching flabbergasted as he reversed an entire 6b+ in-order to avoid a dunking. It later translated that he has a fear of water and getting his jeans wet so we named his next route Calvin Klein.
A visit to the dramatic Hang Ca Cave was not without incident as we came treacherously close to wedging the crib boat on the caves roof. A spectacle for on-lookers, the cave saw its first ever deep-water solo ascents and narrowly avoided becoming the first site for a tourist kayaker to be flattened by a plummeting climber.
Back on deck later that night things start to take a turn for the worst as we discover the captain has stumbled overboard between the two boats and narrowly avoided a pummelling. It doesn’t take too long to realise the two litres of rice wine is to blame and thankfully his pride is the only thing that’s taken a blow. It’s a stormy night with the hatchets battled down, the waves thundering against the windows as we play cards and slurp our rapidly diminishing whiskey like pirates.
I’m woken by the sound of a boat and a sailor’s voice carried by the morning breeze. A fisherman casts his net into the tranquil lagoon disrupting the perfect reflections. There is a strange sense of eeriness and my stomach tells me we shouldn’t be climbing here. Before breakfast we explore a new wall and christen it Fisherman’s Way. A surreal location on perfect scallops of razor-sharp orange rock yet only marred by the distant oilrigs and tanker ships we’d not encountered before. A plethora of fine routes and bizarrely an over-hanging jamming crack which offers a welcome respite from the sharp pockets. Over breakfast we encounter our first visit from the police. Their green military uniform and foreboding looks signify a force not be reckoned with and we fear for the worse. Tensions ease as we realise that it’s illegal to climb in this bay and they hadn’t spotted us earlier. The visit was routine and ended with a bribe of our last four beers! A change of strategy was required as we cruised round, frustrated by the shallow water and military intervention. Soon we encountered the famous Golden Turtle Cave. Legend has it the turtle swam towards the South China Sea with a holy sword to help the King of the Sea protect against Ming invaders from China. The turtle continued to fight against monsters in the marine sea but became exhausted and sadly passed away in the cave. The waters were becoming treacherously low and not wanting to tempt fate in this sacred cave we ventured far out into the bay.
Big Ben and the Face
A remarkable fin of rock perched high on a lonely island called The Face was glowing in the late evening sun. Rumours of two exceptional sports routes needed to be confirmed and although time was very limited this prestigious location couldn’t be dismissed. We were dropped off by the captain and given just a few hours with which to complete our final team mission before seeking out safe waters for our last night together. As I laid foot on a solid surface for the first time in a week things felt very strange but not half as strange as the thought of clipping bolts. Up until now we hadn’t had to burden ourselves with the hassle of ropes and quick drawers and it came as somewhat of a shock to the system. A sixty-meter plinth of dazzling orange limestone tufa, inter-dispersed with crozzly pockets towered in front of the team. The climbing was sustained yet never desperate with some funky moves and views from the lower off were truly mesmerising. These had to be for sure, two of the best grade seven sports routes on the planet.
Back on the ship the crew were feeling the strain of two weeks at sea and sought respite by sailing off into the night to indulge in some well-earned Vietnamese karaoke on one of the nearby floating villages. While the captain was away the mice could play and we embellished ourselves with the run of the ship and our last night together. Soon things had got riotous and everyone was overboard and swimming in a lagoon of phosphorescent plankton. Sparkling droplets filled the moon lit sky and apart from the distant drone of very bad Vietnamese karaoke there wasn’t a sound to be heard. We were in paradise and had come to the end of a trip I certainly shall never forget…..
How to get there
Fly to Hanoi from where you can travel to the coast by bus. Here it’s possible to catch a high-speed passenger boat to Cat Ba Island from where you can plan your trip.
When to go
Vietnam experiences a tropical monsoon climate. From May to September the south monsoon brings rain and high temperatures. The north monsoon from October to February is the best time to climb when it’s cool and clear.
The most important factor to consider it that you choose a two-week period that allows for the maximum amount of daylight high tides. On a months trip there will be a week when the water simply isn’t deep enough for DWS.
A new guide is soon to be available from www.asiaoutdoors.com, which will include all the latest DWS routes put up on this expedition.
Posted on Wednesday 5th August 2020