Climbing in Cat Ba started in the 90's and early 2000's with several international professional climbers leading expeditions to bolt the cliffs of Ha Long Bay. It has now become one of the many stops that climbers make on their South East Asia climbing rock trips.
Guest blog by Sakari Cajanus
Why Climb In Cat Ba
Cat Ba is the most developed sport climbing destination in Vietnam. Judging by the sheer amount of routes it pales in comparison to other popular climbing destinations in South-East Asia. However the quality of the rock as well as the variety of routes on the four crags on the island can be favourably compared to any destination.
Being less popular than many other destinations, the over 100 routes on the main island see less traffic and are for the most part not yet polished. Also out in the bay there are some bolted climbs accessible by boat.
The scenary alone is a great reason to come to Cat Ba, climbing in the bay with the unique views of a UNESCO Hertiage Park will stay with you for a lifetime.
For a full day of adventure you can combine climbing with exploring the many caves and lagoons -- consult the guidebook, locals or Google Maps (use the satellite images!) for possibilities.
Apart from the sport climbing, there are possibilities for DWS, both on day trips with one of the companies (Asia Outdoors, Cat Ba Climbing) on the island, or for the adventurous, by booking a boat on your own. If you decide to do it this way, knowing the locations of the crags and a bit of Vietnamese is helpful.
If you want to go Deep Water Soloing check the tides to see whether its possible.
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Best Time to Come to Cat Ba
The best season for sport climbing in Cat Ba is from late October to March. After that, the temperature starts to rise, and for the summer months of June to August the rainy season might affect your climbing plans. The rain usually comes in short bursts and most of the walls are protected from the rain to an extent, but combined with the high temperatures, it is not the best time for sport climbing.
Conversely, the coldest months of the year from December to March might be less enjoyable for deep water solo, but throughout the rest of the year warm temperatures make falling in something to look forward to! The deep water solo walls are for the most part overhanging enough that they stay dry during rain, though some tufas might be wet.
How To Get To Cat Ba
Both buses and ferries go directly from Hanoi. There are many a pick-up locations in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, and drop-off at your accommodation on Cat Ba -- the price of the full bus and ferry combination is not much more than paying for the bus and ferry separately, so for convenience that combination can't usually be beat.
The other options include either flying or taking a train to the nearest city in mainland Vietnam, Hai Phong, and then taking a ferry over to Cat Ba. The ferries leave from Ben Binh pier in Hai Phong. Depending on which ferry you take, you might end up directly at the main strip in Cat Ba town, or in Cai Vieng where you get on a bus to reach the Cat Ba town.
The new bridge from Hai Phong City to Cat Hai reduces the travel time from Hanoi to Cat Ba to around 3 hours, making it a good destination even for a weekend trip.
It is also possible to reach Cat Ba from the North through Ha Long City, by getting to the island of Tuan Chau first and getting a ferry to Giai Luan in northern Cat Ba.
How Good is the Climbing in Cat Ba
While Cat Ba can't compete with other destinations in easy access or the number of routes, the routes are varied and on good quality limestone rock. Most of the climbing is face climbing, and you have slightly different styles at different crags.
Most of the climbing on Cat Ba itself is 6a and up, so for complete beginners there are not too many routes. If you decide to book a climbing trip or independent climbing on Moody Beach out in the bay, there are 5 routes from 4+ to 6A with a 6B+ thrown in the mix for beginner climbers.
For the intermediate Cat Ba is good for staying a couple of days to a couple of weeks, as there might not be climbs to do at your level. Combining sport climbing with deep water solo is a way to find more things to climb if you would like to stay longer.
For day-trip adventures, it is possible to go check out some of the climbs in the bay: For the multipitch on left side of Tiger Beach as well as Pirate's Belly it's best to go through Asia Outdoors both for status of the bolts and access, and for getting out to the Face it is often easiest to go through them as well.
Are the Bolts Safe?
The bolts are both stainless steel expansion bolts as well as glue-ins. Butterfly Valley is maintained by Asia Outdoors, and the bolts there should be checked and safe to climb on. The climbs in the Cave and Ben Beo might see less traffic and maintenance, but should generally be fine. The Farm/Hidden valley is maintained by Cat Ba Climbing, and the state of the bolting can be checked with them. Not all the climbs in the Hidden Valley were necessarily all bolted with climbing-rated hardware to begin with.
Out in the Bay, Moody Beach is maintained by Asia Outdoors as they run their own trips on this beach. The rest of the climbs, such as the multi-pitch, Pirate's Belly and the climbs on The Face might still have the original bolts, the quality of which is not guaranteed and should be checked before climbing.
Bolts can be found elsewhere in the bay as well, but as they were done by the original expeditions they should not be climbed before re-bolting.
In general, Cat Ba and Lan Ha bay doesn't have the same problem with stainless steel bolts as Tonsai in Thailand has, but there is an effort to switch from expansion bolts to glue-ins as the climbs are being re-bolted.
Accommodation in Cat Ba
Most people stay in Cat Ba town, which has several reasonably priced hotels and hostels to choose from. In principle, 3 of the crags are within walking distance of the town (10 minutes to half an hour), but most people end up renting motorbikes and one is needed to reach the biggest crag of Butterfly Valley, anyway.
Chalk, Gear & Guides
Chalk and climbing gear is not available for sale on Cat Ba, and climbers are advised to stock up in Hanoi, Saigon or elsewhere before arriving. On the flipside, bring chalk and you are sure to make some new friends! Renting climbing gear is possible through Asia Outdoors, and possibly through Cat Ba climbing as well.
Guidebooks are sold by Asia Outdoors. Almost all of the climbing can be done with a 60 meter rope, with only one or two of the harder climbs requiring a 70 meter one.
If you want to buy before you travel this appears to be the must up todate guide book you can find online.
Power & Wi-Fi
Cat Ba town has very good Wi-Fi coverage, with most of the passwords being the usual ranging from 12345678 to 66668888. There can be occasional power outages, but usually quite short in duration. Power is 24/7.
At the crags themselves, there is no Wi-Fi but mobile data and mobile connections in general should work.
Food & Water
Water can be purchased in bottles in the shops and restaurants, but environmentally conscious can also find water refill available at Asia Outdoors shop and possibly elsewhere as well. Near Ben Beo harbour there are a few cafes and shops to buy water, coffee and snacks, but climbers heading to the Cave or Hidden Valley should stock up in advance.
In Buttefly Valley, drinks are available for sale, and you can order a family-style lunch in advance and have it ready for you at agreed-upon time. Vegetarian option is available ('an chay' in Vietnamese), but vegans might have a hard time in avoiding eggs (không trứng, pronounced more or less khong chung, is how you would ask for no egg).
For early starters, you can hit the market on the West side of Cat Ba after taking the right turn off the seaside main strip, in 100 meters or so its on the left. Things start opening up at 5 AM, with sticky rice, sandwiches (bánh mì) and fruit available for sale.
Keo Lac, literally translating to peanut candy, and Vietnamese energy bar rectangles in vacuum plastic are a very popular snack in addition to fruit, as well as the ubiquitous Snickers from both supermarkets and from street vendors.
Things You Need to Know
- Many countries get around 15 days visa-free, but visa on arrival is also a possibility for 1 or 3 months. For these, you will need to get your visa approval letter beforehand! There are several reputable companies online. Check out this blog post.
- There are ATMs on Cat Ba (two, actually), but they might sometimes run out of money. Supposedly you can take money out at the bank as well (bring passport!)
6A+ Mother Butterfly. A long, scenic climb: A bit harder for some due to exposure, but all the more beautiful for the same reason!
6B+ Elephant Man. Good climbing in juggy pockets, surprisingly challenging balancy crux, and a few powerful moves at the top. Classic.
6C+ Miyagi Box Maker. Bouldery start, but the real challenge comes after, moving on the face with decent pockets and sloping feet.
7A+ Egyptian Submission Position. Committing and balancy slab on minimal holds in the start, and the end is no joke either!
7B Animal. Face climbing. As good as it gets.
Deep Water Solo:
6C+ Vairghy Bootifol in Three Brothers.
7A+ in the Pyramid Cave.
7C+ Streak of Lightning.
Out in the bay:
License to Climb (7A+) and Nightrider (7B) on the Face.
What to Do on Rest Days
Getting out of town is advisable -- on the main island you can hit one of the beaches, or for more active recovery you can do one of the hikes in the National Park or a guided one in Butterfly valley.
The main attraction of Cat Ba (for non-climbers anyway) is the Lan Ha Bay, and it is definitely worth seeing. To see the most, it is a good idea to book a trip of kayaking or stand up paddle boarding. It is possible to rent out a kayak out from Ben Beo harbour as well, but booking a trip means taking a boat out first, and you get to see more, and perhaps more interesting locations, further out in the bay.
The beaches on the main island can be crowded with Vietnamese, so it might be advisable to get off the island and explore the bay instead.
It’s beautiful scenery might not be an asset compared to other destinations in SEA but could be mentioned not only for the rest days.
Sakari first left Finland to work on Cat Ba as a kayaking and climbing guide, and since then has travelled back to South East Asia through Sweden, Israel, Azerbaijan and Iran. His last job in Finland was working with data analysis and software development, and it remains to be seen what he does next.
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