Climbing in Cat Ba

Cat Ba is the largest island in the gorgeous Halong Bay region.  We found the nightlife here lacking, so we decided to make our own fiesta full of kayaking, climbing, and of course beer.  We booked a day bay cruise with a local waterman (our hotel receptionist’s brother) for 1 million dong and picked up two cases of Hanoi long necks to enjoy on the cruise the next day.  We boarded the furiously vibrating vessel around 9am and motored towards the floating houses inside the bay.  Here we picked up some kayaks, cracked open a few beers, and set out exploring.  We paddled, and drank, for about two hours, exploring natural lagoons and admiring the limestone islands protruding from the clear water.  (Halong Bay is considered one of the natural wonders of the world due to the thousands of beautiful limestone islands arising in different shapes and sizes.)

One of the limestone islands in Halong Bay.

One of the limestone islands in Halong Bay.

Next we motored over to a local floating restaurant for some fresh seafood.  Underneath of the restaurant hung large nets with enormous fish swimming in their nylon confines.  This ensures that a fresh meal is always available. We feasted on some grilled fish, soup, rice, fried eggs and vegetables, washing it all down with more beer.

A quick feast is always close by.

A quick feast is always close by.

With full stomachs, the swaying of the boat started to make us a little drowsy.  But the prospect of some deep water free climbing quickly erased any drowsiness.  Climbing proved a little more difficult than anticipated because of the low water levels due to the dry season.  In order to get high enough to grab a hand hold on the limestone rock face, we climbed onto the rafter if the boat and got a boost by stepping on the thigh of one of the boat mates.

Martin was the first up and made his ascent methodically.  At one point, he got stuck for a few minutes looking for the next move, eventually powering through and making his way to a natural overhang perfect for jumping off.  Any higher and he would have risked hitting the rocks under the water due to the shallow levels.

Martin demonstrating the best way to end a climb.

Martin demonstrating the best way to end a climb.

Jeff was the next up and made his way to the spot where Martin had gotten hung up for a moment.  After a few minutes of searching for a good hold, Jeff decided to take the leap into the water below.

I was up last and eager to take on some challenging climbing.  I was surprised by how sharp the limestone was, making it hard to put your full body weight on most holds.  There were a lot of accessible holds at the beginning and I scampered up to the point Martin got stuck at.  As I swung my left foot up to a hold just underneath my left hand, I realized that I wasn’t going any farther today.  My knees were two giant scabs at this point in the healing process and I reluctantly accepted that it would be less painful to swallow my pride than jump into saltwater with reopened wounds.  I was pumped that I got to climb in such an awesome location, knowing that falling just meant an aquatic adrenaline rush.

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Some sweet climbing but damn those rocks are sharp.

When we got back to the dock, a large stage had been constructed.  Apparently the circus was in town directly across from our hotel room.  Our 5th floor balcony provided the best free seats in town.  As families piled into their seats, I was surprised to hear songs like “Greatest Ass in the World” blaring from the speakers with so many kids around.  The circus was pretty cool, with the monkeys riding bicycles and baby bears riding scooters proving to be the highlights.  At one point, a bear veered off course straight towards a group of children, until he was swiftly tackled and redirected by his trainer.

This was by far the best of the three days we spent on the island.  The first was spent mulling around as Martin got a leak In his fuel tank welded.  The mechanic tried to charge an obscene amount and locked the bike in place when we refused to be whored.  After wasting our time for hours, he finally accepted a reasonable rate once he was ready to close and we were getting the police involved.

The other day we explored some of the caves on the island.  Hospital Cave was used as a bunker during the war and had over twenty rooms spread across three levels.  These included a doctor and patient room, swimming pool, and cinema with the picture projected on the rock backdrop.  A series of small pools allowed for the Vietnamese to jump to the level below in case a quick escape was needed.

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Stick up, Vietnam style.

We also explored another cave that was closed to the public (locked gates are easily climbed over or around).  We navigated through the pitch black until the passageways became too narrow to continue.

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Casual cave exploring.

The north of the island had some cool trails leading over hills and through forests that made for good trekking.

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A pretty sweet trail over the hills that the local farmers use.

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