With our time in Vietnam running a bit short, and having gotten our exposure to the countryside and mountains on our motorbiking trip, and to city life with a few days in Hanoi, we decided what was missing was some time on the coast, so we headed to Cat Ba Island, home to a large national park, some stunning limestone islands dotting an expansive bay, and of course plentiful and delicious seafood of all kinds.
The highlight of our time there was a day-long tour of the bay, which started with some time cruising by the many floating fishing villages: ramshackle huts built on large floats where whole families live (including small children and dogs who are often afraid of water). Then we jumped into a kayak to explore the otherworldly scenery of sheer cliffs, enclosed lagoons, and deserted beaches. Next came the day’s main attraction: a few hours of “deep water soloing”, rock climbing off small boats without any protective gear. Here’s how it works:
You take the motorboat up to the base of a sheer cliff and the guide points to where to put your hands and feet. You time the swells of the waves so that you can jump off the boat’s deck and onto the route’s first holds, then the boat putters away and you’re left clinging to the side of the cliff. You work your way up the rock, usually climbing for about five or ten meters, or a bit more if your vertigo hasn’t gotten to you yet.
Then you find a secure spot, look below you to make sure there aren’t any boats, people, or fish, and jump towards the plane of water below…
Standing on the side of the cliff and looking down, you’re full of anxiety, you kick yourself for having climbed so high, and don’t think you’ll be able to jump, then you tell yourself it’s the only way down. You muster up your courage, take a few deep breaths, count to three, and let go. The anxiety is followed by a moment of fear and excitement of falling through the air, then a moment of complete calm and silence as everything around you freezes in place before the impact. Before you know it, the water has arrested your fall and everything around you is blue and light. You float to the surface, blow out the few gallons of water that seem to have gotten forced up your nose and into your ears, swim back to the boat and get ready to do it all again.
In my 15 or so years of climbing, this experience was the purest and most exhilarating way to practice the sport I’ve tried yet. When climbing this way you’re unencumbered by worry about the gear, the ground below you, the next few moves, or whether your partner is paying adequate attention. It’s just you, the rock, and the sound of the waves beneath you. The downsides are waiting for the boat to drop you off at the right spot, then being forced to jump on the wall quickly; and the fact that if you have trouble with a move or get tired out, there’s really no second chance.
It’s a different challenge and a different reward from other types of climbing, but a truly wonderful experience.