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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Vietnam - Bia Hoi and Phó, Hell NO to the Thit Cho!

The idea of visiting the colorful country of Vietnam was borne literally out of a bowl of soup. I was introduced to Vietnamese food about 11 years ago while living in Charlotte, NC. After evening tennis, Sanjib and I would head out to the local Vietnamese restaurant to tuck in phó, fresh spring rolls and shrimp and chicken pancakes. Phó is literally noodle soup in a tasty broth along with pieces of meat, herbs, fresh greens and bean sprouts on the side that you gradually add to the hot broth. Charlotte has a surprising large Vietnamese community and the rest of us benefitted. The mains were six-seven dollars a plate and we would be out of the door in about ten dollars. This was comfort food for me - cheap, tasty and healthy, that I was happy eating often.

Butterfly Valley - fantastic locale, great climbing!
Of course the main reason I wanted to visit was to explore the surreal landscape of karts islands in Ha Long Bay which offered endless deep water soloing (DWS) potential. It also fit in quite well with my Asia trip, neatly placed enroute to China from the South.
The crew enroute toTiger Island - my Birthday Day!
A seventeen hour bus ride from Thakhekh found Sandra, Michel, Olé and I semi-asleep in Hanoi at 4:30 in the morning. I never understand why these long bus rides deposit you at your destination at these crazy ungodly hours. It'd be wee convenience if they left a little later thereby timing arrival at a decent hour when taxis could be found and we could check into our hotel. Instead we had to kill a few pre-dawn hours curbside in a zombie-like state before the first rays of light found us a cab that brought us to the old city. We promptly checked in and passed out in the first hotel we found.
Coke-drinking rogue simian at Monkey Island
Sandra and Michel left for Ha Long Bay the same day while Olé and I decided to bum around town and savor the pleasures of a big city after the wilderness of the climber's camp in Thakhekh. The first thing to jar us into city consciousness was the traffic in Hanoi - esta loco! Narrow streets and a volley of scooters shooting in from every direction. Felt like real-life Frogger! I heard somebody joke that the safest and least-nerve wracking way to cross streets might be to blindfold oneself and let the riders navigate around you! It took us a while to get accustomed and yes, the scooters are good at avoiding pedestrians, swerving around you at the last minute. (Two things about my Delhi upbringing that I'm always grateful for when traveling in these exotic lands - ability to maintain calm in wild traffic, and of course,  a strong tummy that can tolerate most cuisines. Five months into this trip and I've generally managed to avoid the dreaded traveller's diarrhea. I can't get Delhi belly coz I already got one.! excuse the bad joke).
Cat Ba!
Ended up spending about 4 days in Hanoi. I was content to chill, sightsee a bit every day, sample delicacies that were washed down with delicious Vietnamese coffee - really strong dark coffee with a spoonful of condensed milk in the morning, and beer at night. Crazy contradiction here - for the price of one coffee (1 usd) you could buy four mugs of Bia Hoi, the local draught beer. at .25 usd each! Why drink anything else at all? The beer at approx 3.2 % was hardly choice IPA but still amazing at that price. 
All grins kayaking around the Ha Long Bay emerald waters
Jenna, my friend in Hanoi, was kind enough schlep me around the city in the evenings, introduce me to her great circle of local friends while also sampling some of the nightlife. We both love salsa and found a venue one evening. There were only two couples dancing and we later had a little chat with the DJ - a Cuban émigré who though I was a fellow countryman! He recognized my Cuban vueltas and figured that I was brown enough to look Cuban. I was flattered but felt sorry to disappoint! 

From the top of the multi-pitch at Tiger
 Island - maybe the best views I've ever enjoyed on my birthday!?
The island of Cat Ba is situated a few miles offshore in Ha Long Bay. Arriving from Hanoi took only a few hours between a bus and a ferry ride. First impressions were a bit underwhelming. There is no visible beach but a mile long stretch of shops and tall drab hotels lining the esplanade. I had only misled myself into thinking that this was going to be more like Tonsai (where the lack of modern construction is quite pleasing). Additionally, it was cold! Low clouds, no sun and temps in the 40s (with wind-chill) the day we arrived. We rented a scooter and went for a little exploratory ride along the island. Once you make it past the concrete ugliness, Cat Ba is gorgeous. It's densely lush with tropical forests and the road loops around these hills that stretch for a distance.  However the beauty of the place was somewhat lost on us that first day as we froze our butts and hurried back so we could grab dinner and snuggle under our duvets. Like a total chump I had left the few bits of warm clothing I had back in Hanoi and I was dreading the cold over my stay. Fortunately, next day Olé lent me his extra jacket. It also got warmer and the sun peeked out occasionally over the next week and all was good with the world :) 

In fact the weather stayed downright perfect for climbing over our short stay (about 8 days) in Cat Ba., nicely complementing the excellent climbing. Climbing in Cat Ba is almost all at this farm called Butterfly Valley, a 20-30 minute scooter ride from the tourist area in Cat Ba. Olé and I were equally motivated and climbed almost every day. We'd be the first people at the crag in the morning and usually the last ones to leave. There are maybe 40-50 odd routes at this place, offering a superb mix of face, overhangs, slabs and tufas (mandatory in Asia!). The best routes fall in the 5.12 range, with some nice 5.11s and a few 5.13s thrown in for good measure. Being a short trip we were happy with onsights and quick red points though I did try two hard climbs. The first was a short and beautiful 5.12D face route with one long delicate deadpoint of pinches (but Olé masterfully onsighted!) The other one was a 5.13A -  a long and interesting one with a bouldery,  thuggy crux. I didn't send but did enjoy my short session working on them.
Gunning for some fun 12a at Butterfly Valley

The food in Cat Ba was not extraordinary but I do wish I had sampled more sea food. They keep the fishes, and other sea creatures live in tubs at the entrance of the restaurant until a recipe calls for them. The displayed freshness intended to entice customers initially had the opposite effect on us poor squeamish tourists1 We braved up eventually and had excellent sea food hot pots, calamari (the best I've ever had anywhere), and also a bbq that featured clams and oysters. Thit Cho refers to dog meat which is not as commonplace as is alleged but is certainly considered a delicacy in Vietnam. While I can't fault others for their indulgences, most foreigners will stay clear of this exotic meat. I love dogs myself and steered a wide path around any place serving them as food! 

Cost of hotel room, USD 10, view from room, magnifico.
I was also lucky to celebrate my birthday with friends that I had met prior on the trip. Spent the day on this multi-pitch climb above Tiger Island. The climb was easy and fun and also came with stunning vistas across Ha Long Bay. The height afforded us a birds eye view of karts cliffs in all directions, hidden lagoons and blue waters as far as the eye could see. Followed the climbing with a seafood feast with Allie, Jenna, Josh and Jordan, and then a bit of drinking and dancing in one of the local bars. Couldn't have come up with a better plan for my 35th.

I left Vietnam the day after for China. But not before spending a few hours enroute back in Hanoi where I was overjoyed to run into Michelle, my dear friend back from San Francisco who happened to be there for work. We shared a beer at a patio bar and caught up on news from back home. I boarded my night train ride to Nanning full of high spirits and anticipation for new adventures in China!

Ole, thanks for some of these great shots!

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Slice of Paradise in Lao

 The trip is coming along swimmingly. Rock climbing offers unexpected rewards, such as visiting beautiful locales in the off-season. Cool, dry weather makes for prime climbing conditions and spring and fall seasons are usually preferred that luckily also avoid the summer holiday rush from mainstream tourists. Winter can be a good time to visit too, esp to major climbing destinations in Asia. I'm currently in Cat Ba - a beautiful island in Ha Long Bay off the coast of Vietnam. We have a large, comfortable sea-facing hotel room right in the middle of market, at the bargain basement rate of USD 10 per night. And I only pay half since I share the room with my Ole, my climbing partner. I arrived in Cat Ba about a week ago after about 6 weeks in Thailand (with a week's break in Burma), and another 3 weeks in Lao. The climbing in Cat Ba - or Butterfly Valley to be specific - is incredible - sculpted geometry on a gently overhanging wall, offering varied movements and a couple of dozen pitches in the 5.12 to 5.13 range, plenty of action for me!

Thailand was fantastic - 2 weeks of climbing and fitness training, tasty curries, delicious shakes and of course swimming and beautiful sunsets at the island of Tonsai. Next I headed back to Bangkok and proceeded to Burma for a quick week long jaunt with my photographer friend Emily Returning to Thailand I proceeded to Chiang Mai for what was going to be a short stop but ended up spending 3 weeks, throwing myself into a mix of activities and spending time with good friends around. Highlights in Chiang Mai were a massage course (Thai massage anyone?), some lovely day trips to Lampang, Chiang Dao, and of course the wonderfully creative, fresh and aromatic cuisine that the North of Thailand is rightly famous for. If Thailand is the kitchen of the world, then Chiang Mai is certainly the kitchen table! I even did a cooking course, spending a day at an organic farm outside the city and cooking up some favorites (including mango sticky rice, an all time favorite). 

The beautiful landscape towards Thakhek- limestone and endless climbing potnetial
Because of bureaucratic snafus with my Thai visa my Tonsai visit was going to be cut short to only about two weeks and hence I had some time to kill before I moved on north to Vietnam and China. While on the island I heard rumors of this magical climbing destination in Laos that had been developed recently over the last couple of years. Laos was an easy detour in my itinerary up north and research revealed that the climbing Thakhek was indeed quite promising. I immediately started planning and bought air tickets to arrive at The Green Climbers Home the first week of January. The climbing is away from the city in the middle of literally nowhere. The Green Climbers Home however is situated within walking distance of all the developed climbing, seemed a very convenient place to eat, sleep and meet other climbers. HOWEVER in a tragic turn of events a rogue firework over New Year's Eve ravaged the Climbers Home, destroying accommodations and possessions inside - fortunately nobody was hurt. My plans were thrown in a tailspin though that lead to a quick toss of my plane ticket but spontaneous action that took me to Burma first and then Chiang Mai after. I was quite entranced however with descriptions and pictures of Thakhek that I figured I'd try to go anyway, albeit a bit later when the camp had had a chance to recover from the tragedy.
The beautiful  campsite at Green Climber's Home
I arrived in Thakhek pretty easily with a couple of buses, an easy border crossing and then finally a tuk tuk into the Climber's Camp. I"ve become good at chilling on buses - in fact I almost look forward to them if it's comfortable ride (good seats, smooth roads) and i enjoy the downtime and often can make fast progress on whatever I'm reading on my beloved Kindle.
The steeps!
The Climber's Camp has a story book setting. - nestled by towering cliffs, lush forests and a serene river that emerges from a cave system from the other side of the mountain. The  devastation to the camp by the fire was immeidately apparent with the charred foundations of the burnt huts and other debris that was still being cleaned. That was soon forgotten though with Tanja's (camp owner) welcoming words and hugs from my friends Sandra and Michel who had arrived the night before. A tent had been reserved for me and I soon threw my bags in and joined my friends for a tour of the area, a cool Beeralao in hand! It was ridiculous how close the climbing was to camp. All the crags are about 5-15 minutes of easy walking. There is endless limestone around and so far only the most accessible cliffs have been bolted. Of course the potential for more is staggering. The jewel of the area is a massive roof about 20 meters above the ground that juts out about the same distance horizontally. followed by a massive headwall about 40 meters high in itself. The roof sector runs about maybe 100 yards and contains a large number of high quality of routes.
Chill time by the river
Dinner, ciggies, and Beerlao (still impressed by how much Euros smoke - and they all climb well!)!
After a month of negligible climbing I felt rather weak at the onset but regained my fitness in a few days and by the 2nd week found a couple of really fun and long climbs to project. I was doing climbs up to 12B easily (onsight, flash or quick red point) and was looking for something a bit harder. Found two really cool lines to work on. Small World and Vice-Asshole for President (shitty name, great climb) both long and steep 12Ds that felt really hard at the beginning but fell to red point in about 4-5 attempts each. The last time I climbed at this level was about 5 years ago when I was climbing heaps having redpointed a few 5.12Ds at JailHouse in California. Since then my outdoor climbing had been sporadic and I hadn't found the level of psyche or fitness until now. It felt good to be climbing at the same level again! Can't wait for new levels.

My favorite climb of the trip though was a 12C called Melon Monk in the Cave area  - a beautiful line that consists of upside down scoops and water-sculpted holds in the most aesthetic setting imaginable - right at the entrance of the river that emerges from the limestone caves.
Melon Monk 5.12C
While not working on projects in the Roof, we were enjoying climbing in some of the other interesting sectors around - The World Trip sector (with tall vertical lines with crimps, pinches, and long delicious tuffs, as we'll as the White Wall - really long 30-40 meter climbs on slightly overhung to slabby terrain, but of course on really good rock. I had a nice group of friends to climb with - and then towards the end of the trip fell into a great routine of starting really early in the morning pre-breakfast at around 6:30 to 7 am. This meant that we had plenty of time to rest between multiple attempts on our projects. High-volume days are fun, but projecting hard routes (and occasionally) sending them is quite rewarding as well.
There are beautiful technical faces too. 
We found a really nice lifestyle. Climbing 2 days on, 1 day off. After climbing we'd go for a quick run to a beautiful swimming hole and dip in, then run back fully refreshed. Evenings were long and languid - chit-chating with other climbers, discussing the day's exploits and making plans for the next day, over beer and Lao-German-Thai food, expertly prepared by the friendly staff.
Ueli running a lap on Big Smile 5.13C
I really enjoyed the warm, old-world hospitality at Green Climber's Home. Ueli and Tanja run a wonderful camp. They are a German couple who discovered climbing in Lao on a climbing trip through Asia, and on a lark, decided to open this climber's camp and set roots in this beautiful place. They opened in early 2011 and within a year suffered the horrific fire that razed their camp to the ground. After losing all their possessions they didn't mourn for long but set to rebuild right away. When I arrived they had the kitchen fully operational, and the camp at capacity at about 20 climbers. Reconstruction for new facilities had begun already - the update is that it has since finished and they have a spanking new restaurant and dorm accommodations back in play! 
One of the many cave and river systems
They really do treat guests like family. Food and drinks are dispensed on a honor system - you keep an account of what you consume and then settle at the end of your stay. Fairly extraordinary in this time and day! Busy as they are running the place, they were always available to help with all kinds of questions about the place, advice us on selecting climbs and help figure out logistics about travel etc. It is obvious that this is a camp not run by professional hoteliers but by passionate climbers who are so very eager to share this wonderful bit of paradise they've found in Lao.
Eric impressively flashing Melon Monk
If you are passing by Asia and are jonesing for steep, quality, limestone climbing in a serene setting I whole-heartedly recommend The Green Climber's Home. If you decide to go, make sure to contact them before-hand as they have limited capacity and do fill up in high-season. 

There are new sectors being developed and climbs being added with each season. I can't wait to visit again and get some yummy schnitzel in the most unlikely of kitchens!