Dec. 3, 1996 –
Immediately following my arrival in Hanoi, I was surrounded by a group of kids selling postcards, maps, and Vietnamese phrase books. Several taxi drivers hovered about asking me where I wanted to go. All I wanted was for my friends to show up as expected. Our plan was to spend three and a half weeks climbing in Halong Bay where there are over 3000 limestone towers scattered about in the immense salt-water bay. I was anxious to be on my way, but where were they? One taxi driver kept insisting, “Your friends are not coming.” Finally, I called the US and found out that, indeed, they were not coming. Apparently, my arrival day was confused and they didn’t expect me for another few days. Having few other options, I loaded my bags into the taxi and off we went on the five-hour journey to Halong City. Along the way, we drove past countless people on bicycles, working in rice fields, hanging out in front of small shops, and tending to the daily business of life. The next morning in Bai Chay, I walked to the Post Office to call the US for more information concerning the where-abouts of my friends. Little did I know, as I walked down the street, my friends had caught a glimpse of me from their breakfast table and made jokes about how I looked just like “Lynn Hill.” After a few overseas calls, I found out my friends were staying at the “Peace Hotel.” Ironically, just as I hung up the phone Paul and Bill walked into the Post Office- “Welcome to Vietnam!”
This was the beginning of many adventures in this fascinating country with such a rich history, culture, and outrageous rock climbing. The limestone rock itself is subject to erosion by salt-water, wind, and time. The resulting texture, color, and three-dimensional forms of the rock made for the ideal playground for a superb gymnastic style free climbing. The first day out in the bay on our 75 ft. houseboat passed quickly as we marveled at countless beautiful rock formations, trying to decide which ones we would climb.
Since this was virgin territory, we would need to equip the routes by placing our own protection bolts. We were prepared with three battery-powered drills and one gas powered drill: one for each climber. The easiest way to place the bolts was to do it one step at a time from the bottom to the top. I had never pioneered a route in this way before and I wasn’t very familiar with either the equipment or procedure. After I chose an alluring looking face to climb, Todd offered me a drill, a wrench, bolts, etc., and said, “Go ahead and equip us a route.” Not only would I go up on the lead, but I would also be climbing by myself with a self-belay system. Captain Chien took me over to the base of the climb in our “basket” boat. I lugged my heavy load of gear onto a sharp ledge covered with barnacles and began my upward journey. I felt strangely insecure without a climbing partner. I was completely alone and out of sight or communication with anyone. Twenty feet above my head was a huge protruding stalactite hanging out in space from the edge of an overhang. Most of the rock seemed solid enough, but I wasn’t sure how strong the bolts would be in some of the more porous sections of rock. I certainly didn’t want to test the strength of the occasional 1/8-inch bolts I was using to aid climb between the 3/8-inch protection bolts. But sure enough, I did fall onto one of these bolts when a “friend” teetered out of its precarious slot. Fortunately, the small bolt held. After spending much time and energy, I finally got to the top and groomed the rock for my free ascent. I named this route, “Good Morning Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, Todd, Paul, and Scott equipped their own routes around the corner on the “Laughing Dog” wall. Over the new few weeks, we found many more classic routes to play on; “Golden Pleasures,” “Dragon Money,” the “Flying Fish Wall,” the “Nomad,” “Water Puppets,” etc. The most beautiful and spectacular of all the climbs I did was “The Respected Lady” (5.12c). Brilliant orange crystals glistened in the sun on this steep, 160-foot rock tower. There were just enough holds to make it possible to free climb, while still being plenty challenging. What a beautiful, exotic location!
We lived on a diet consisting of mostly “muck’ (squid), fish, crab, shrimp, a bit of chicken, beef, rice, noodles, ginger, garlic, onions, tomato, French bread, jam, bananas, and oranges. At night we entertained ourselves laughing at each other’s antics, corny songs, stories, pranks, food fights, as well as the cute performances and poetry of captain Chien. With the exception of a few money scams, most of our interactions with the Vietnamese people were warm and friendly. After all the years of war, colonization, and struggles for independence, the Vietnamese people continue to defend their culture and freedom in this ever changing world.
A few of the Vietnamese words I recall using the most were, “camon” (Thank you) and “dep” (beautiful), and I can’t think of any better words to summarize my sentiments about this trip.