Climbing in Northern Vietnam: How we got sick on Christmas day

Food poisoning is something our mothers always warn us about before we set off on travels outside the safety of the developed world, but it’s something most of us never seriously worry about when there’s so much yummy exotic grub to try at every street corner. But you certainly wish you were a bit more cautious when you (or your other half) are puking your guts out on Christmas day in a hotel on a Vietnamese island…especially when you cherished the dream of going for an outdoor climb that day and enjoying the local countryside!

Unfortunately though, the reality of travelling is that sometimes things are a bit shit; sometimes you find yourself stuck inside with a fever and barely able to drink water without throwing up, and feeling sorry for yourself because this was all meant to be one big perfect adventure, right?

So this is how the Vietnam part of our South East Asian climbing saga began…We arrived on Cat Ba island late on the 23rd December and went to check out the crag on the 24th, but didn’t plan to climb until Christmas day, as we were trying to take a long break after Laos. We woke up all eager to climb on the 25th, but very quickly realised it was not to be…

We think we got sick from a seafood barbecue we had on Christmas eve – deciding to splash out on an expensive meal (which still only cost us £10 each). We had to cook our own food on a small grill (picture below), adding a little bit of excitement to the dinner, but we must have done a bad job of cooking a piece of seafood, or perhaps it wasn’t very fresh.

Either way, Clay was violently ill the next day, so instead of a Christmas day climb, we had a Christmas day in bed watching Netflix. Not that dissimilar to a Christmas day back home, sadly, just without the eating part…

At least I was feeling fine, so I tried to look after Clay as much as I could (though there isn’t much you can really do in this situation, apart from offering water and cuddles). Disappointing, but it’s just one day out of a whole year of climbing; or so we thought…unfortunately, three days later, I succumbed to the exact same bug! Turns out whatever it was, it was contagious.

I managed to get sick the evening before a trip we had planned to The Face, an island with two classic climbs – License to Climb (7a+) and Nightrider (7b) – which we had both been really looking forward to. It is a long boat ride away from Cat Ba island (around 60-90 mins), and something you have to do in a group because of the expense (hiring a boat for a day usually costs around 1.2 million Vietnamese dong, around £40).

So the night before, we met up with four friends for dinner to plan our trip. I was already feeling a bit unwell before dinner, but figured there was nothing I could be ill from, having only eaten vegetarian food since Clay had got sick. However, once I got to the restaurant, things went from bad to worse very quickly, culminating in myself having to run outside to be sick around half an hour after we had arrived. Not my best moment, and certainly not a fond memory, but funny in hindsight. It did ruin our plans though, and sort of ruined my climbing for most of the trip, as I never really felt like I had fully recovered my strength afterwards.

In the grand scheme of things though, each of us had only spent one day in bed. Things could have been much worse! Plus, the nice lady at the restaurant (Yummy, one of our favourite places to eat on Cat Ba) gave me a free mango when she saw how ill I was. A lovely gesture, though it didn’t look even remotely appetising at that exact moment, and in the end we never actually ate it!

The sport climbing on Cat Ba

In general, illness aside, we found the sport climbing on Cat Ba quite underwhelming, given it was the place we were looking forward to climbing at the most before we set off. There are only four crags, and we spent most of our time at Butterfly Valley because it had the biggest choice of routes. But even there, I found the grading quite inconsistent.

It would be unfair to say there are no good climbs, though. There were many stellar routes on good quality rock. Standouts for us include Elephant Man (6b+), Cracker Jack (6c), Obama 101 (7a) and Buffalo Love (7a+).

However, my enjoyment was really affected by getting ill, and I was having trouble finishing anything off in those couple of weeks, which generally got me down about my climbing.

The only other crag on Cat Ba that we went to was Ben Beo, a small one just next to the port from which boats depart out to other islands, but I really didn’t like the climbing there. Clay would have more good things to say about it, but I struggled with everything at this crag, including the easiest route,6a+! I found it too polished and/or insecure and certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to go back.

The best climbing experience we had was definitely the trip we eventually made to The Face, after I recovered and our friends Jordan and Ashton arrived to Cat Ba, so we could make the trip together and split the cost of the boat. It was a lot of fun, and despite there being only two routes on the wall, we all had a good time, taking turns to take pictures from a viewing spot and enjoying the views while others climbed. The boat ride out is really fun in itself, and takes you past a huge floating village and lots of gorgeous little rock islands. We were planning to spend half a day there and then go to another island crag, but ended up there for the whole day!

The 7a+, License to Climb, is an absolute classic, though definitely on the soft side. The rock was really cool, the moves technical and fun, and the views spectacular! I didn’t get on Nightrider (7b), but apparently the terrible rock quality at the top detracted from the experience…

One caveat is that Cat Ba island is famous for its deep water soloing, not its sport climbing, and we didn’t get to try any of that, because the weather and the tides didn’t make it very appealing. It was relatively cold and overcast while we were there (late December/early January) and the high tides were early in the morning. Perhaps if we had come during a warmer season, this would have been the highlight of the trip, though even the idea of DWS terrifies me! But even then, we would have had to pay a lot for a boat to take us out every time we wanted to go, and it would have turned into quite an expensive holiday.

My verdict would be to skip Vietnam for climbing in the future, unless you want to visit it anyway for other reasons (food?). Apart from Cat Ba, other parts of the country are pretty much devoid of climbing, although Asia Outdoors is developing a new crag at Mai Chau, so the variety may increase somewhat.

We also preferred Chiang Mai and Laos for the atmosphere, with both places having climbing camps where we met lots of wonderful friends and had a great time relaxing after a day on the rocks. There is sadly nothing like this on Cat Ba yet, but I think if a place like this is set up in the future it will really improve the experience.

There is a place called Woodstock Beach Camp, which was apparently really nice and has a great hippie-ish atmosphere, but the rooms were way too expensive for us (something like $26 a night), so we opted to stay at one of the other hotels recommended to us by Asia Outdoors, the Phuong Mai Family Hotel for $10 a night instead (which was great, and we also rented a motorbike from here for just $4/50,000 dong a day). A cheap climber’s camp is what this place needs!

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