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.
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.
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.
|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).
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.
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!?
|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 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!