Sophomore year of college I got lucky.
I was in a gym when my buddy and I saw a note: “Want to be a climbing guide in Vietnam? Email us: email@example.com.”
The idea was far-fetched, and my knowledge of Vietnam had been limited to history books and war flicks. But without hesitation or even much thought, I shot over an email and the seed was planted. I was ahead in my studies so I figured I could take some time off school (actually saving money) and head along for the adventure. At twenty, I had little to lose.
I spent five months as a guide at Asia Outdoors on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay region. As follows is my perspective of the experience supplemented with a guide for planning your own trip.
I finished sophomore year at Cal Poly, packed my bags, and was straight off to Vietnam for the summer/fall. I headed into Hanoi for the night, met my new boss, Onslo Carrington, and he helped me catch a bus to Hai Phong. A boat ride from there to Cat Ba and about thirty hours after leaving Los Angeles I arrived on the island.
Ha Long Bay is a stunning spectacle of towering limestone karsts littered across a vast King Kong-esque landscape with mini villages and handmade basket boats polka-dotting the waters. The summer heat boils your bloodstream, and chalk turns to milk during the wrong season. The climbing, though, is surreal: dreamy tufas, juggy overhangs, and slopey gymnastic dynos. It’s not the delicacy of Joshua Tree, but it sure is fun.
I spent five months on the gem that is Cat Ba. Upon first arriving, it felt like a dirty Asian Jersey Shore. Living there, though, the magic of the locals and landscapes settles in. My experience was isolating from the western rat race in which we often find ourselves and this period of my life provided the clearest state of thought and mindfulness I have experienced. Island life pushed aside Mother American Culture, and I realized that no amount of stuff will ever make me happy. The Vietnamese are among the happiest people I’ve met, and their lives are utterly simple.
Adjusting to the food in Vietnam took three weeks. Adjusting to the heat of Vietnam took a full month. It took four months before things (moldy pillows, rats and roaches, sewage-scented waters) started feeling comfortable, and then at five months I finally came to understand what it means to have island fever.
I left at month five. I went to Northern Thailand to climb at Crazy Horse and then back to California to finish out the school year. The experience was mystical, liberating, and profound to say the least.
From Cat Ba there’s a mix of well-bolted sport climbing on the island (Butterfly Valley, Ben Beo Harbor) or out on the water (Moody Beach, The Amphitheater, Tiger Beach). There’s also plenty of deep water soloing scattered throughout (Polish Pillar, Hawaii 5-0, Three Brothers, and others), but be sure to call ahead and check tide conditions before arriving.
Getting to Cat Ba’s Butterfly Valley is easily accessible via a motorbike rental (about $10 USD/day), but the climbing in the bay is only accessible with a basket boat. I no longer have any affiliation, but I recommend talking to Asia Outdoors for the beta.
The sport climbing grades vary from 5.6 beginner climbs to about 5.13+. The best climbs I experienced were in the 5.10-5.12 range. Similar grades are available for DWS, with Lightning Crack (pictured) being a classic 5.13 test piece.
I'd estimate that I did about 40+ climbs while on Cat Ba. Here are a few favorites:
- You Enjoy Myself (6b/5.10d)
- Elephant Man (6b+/5.11a)
- Miyagi Box Maker (7a/5.11d)
- Coalition of the Willing (7a+/5.12a)
- Big Brown B-Hole (7b/5.12b)
- License to Climb (7b/5.12b)
Cat Ba is an island within the greater Ha Long Bay region. Technically, Cat Ba is in the smaller Lan Ha Bay as opposed to Ha Long Bay, but this area has far fewer crowds and no large boats—it’s where you want to head for the outdoors. If you want a cruise ship with your 300 closest friends, Ha Long Bay is calling your name.
Getting to Cat Ba can be either relatively simple or a nightmare. To keep it simple, take the Hoang Long Bus Company from Hanoi through Hai Phong and to Cat Ba. The address to access the Hoang Long busses and tickets is the following: Ben xe Luong Yen / So 1 Nguyen Khoai / Hanoi, Vietnam.
Show this to a xe om (motorbike) driver and at the station ensure that you’re only boarding a bus with a large Hoang Long logo on the side. From Hanoi, plan on a 4.5 hour journey to Cat Ba.
The journey includes three busses and one speed boat ride. You won’t quite know if you’re heading in the right direction, but keep in good communication with your drivers by sharing your ticket and indicating that you’re heading to Cat Ba.
Avoid going through Ha Long City as it is filled with scams and con artists. Further details are available here.
Where to stay
The majority of hotels on the strip are suiting, and you should be able to get a room for around $7-15 USD/night. Be aware that Cat Ba is a very large destination for Vietnamese tourists during the summer months (July-September). Try to arrive mid-week to avoid the weekend hotel rush. A specific hostel worth checking out is Mr. Zoom's Backpacker Hostel. Mr. Zoom is a very friendly English-speaking guy and he runs an excellent restaurant too.
Where to eat
During my time on the island, my top picks were My Way Café and Mr. Zooms. The occasional (but pricey) meal at Green Mango was a nice taste of western comfort and for special occasions we would head out to Le Pont. Excellent reviews for these restaurants can be found on TripAdvisor.
What else to do on the island
Cat Ba is a paradise for exploring. Rent a motorbike and drive the entire island, being sure to pull over for the sites along the way. Hospital Cave is a fifteen-minute motorbike ride out of town and provides beautiful views with a taste of history. Cannon Fort, meanwhile, is just a five-minute motorbike ride (or long walk!) outside of town and has stunning vista points overlooking the bay.
Only three beaches are on the island and they are a quick fifteen-minute walk from town. Get a taste of each beach as they all have their own vibe. If looking for poor but entertaining bouldering, a bit of climbing is available at Cat Co 2.
Also head up to the Ho Chi Minh monument overlooking Cat Ba. At sunset, the views are breathtaking.
Disguised beneath the dirty streets, Cat Ba is a gem with friendly locals and majestic landscapes. Try to avoid the mid-summer heat (late-June through August) and take some time to explore the island. The climbing doesn’t have Tonsai-like accessibility, but for a three to five-day detour I cannot recommend Cat Ba enough. The sport climbing is a blast, and be sure to spend one or two days deep water soloing to leave refreshed and full of life.