Vietnam is different. Different from America, different from Europe, and unique even within Southeast Asia. Isolated under the communist rule that TOOK HOLD IN 1975 AFTER THE END OF THE War,”Vietnam didnreopen its doors until the early 1990s. Since then, tourism and trade are up, but todayvisitors will still find a mostly nonglobalized CULTURE, AMUSINGLY PEPPERED WITH 1990S ARTIFACTS LIKE NEW KlDS ON THE BLOCK POSTERS, WHITE JEANS, DENIM VESTS, AND MULLETS.
Vietnam wraps around the eastern side of the Indochina Peninsula, opposite Thailand, with the South China Sea to its east. Although on an economic upswing, Vietnam is still a single-party communist state and has a human-rights record that remains ,”according to the U.S. Department of State. Restrictions on speech, the press, assembly, and freedom of association still muzzle dissent. About 85 percent of the population practices Buddhism, though this manifests more subtly, in world views of peace and acceptance, rather than in the overt displays found in other Asian countries. During our visit, we didnsee a single person meditating in lotus position or even any prominent temples.
Nowhere is Vietnam more peaceful than in Ha Long Bay, the countryclimbing destination. Encompassing roughly 2,000 monolithic limestone islets along the edge of the South China Sea, Ha Long was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1994 and has been nominated as one of the worldseven Natural Wonders. It is home to approximately 1,600 floating residents who cluster in protected sub-bays. From Hanoi, a cheap five-hour public-transit ride takes you east to Cat Ba, where boats reach the bay via its southern entrance.
Noa Long Legend recounts that when the locals were fighting Chinese invaders hundreds of years ago, the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the early founders of Vietnam. During the battle the dragons spat jewels and jade into the ocean, and the remnant projectiles are now the islets of Ha Long —literally, Dragon”—Bay.
More than 20 years after U.S. forces pulled out, the first North American climbers showed up in Vietnam. Realizing Ha Longstaggering potential during a non-climbing visit, the late, great Todd Skinner led the charge. A master organizer, Skinner put together a return trip with a talented and high-profile team, including Lynn Hill, Paul Piana, and Scott Milton, who established 22 routes (up to 5.13+) in less than two weeks. To maximize efficiency, each climber rope-soloed out of his/her boat, bolting ground-up. Later, Ha Long Bay saw visits from deep water soloing (DWS) pioneers such as Klem Loskot, Tim Emmett, and others.
Our trip came about when my girlfriend, Jodi, decided to assist a Vietnamese friend on a trip to do dental work at Hanoiorphanages. When Jodi mentioned going to Vietnam, the first thing that popped into my mind was deep water soloing in Ha Long Bay. A pair of climbers I knew, who call themselves Pony,”had started a guiding business there. I enlisted my old friend Joe Brooks, a former pro climber turned real estate agent whotaken a hiatus from the sport, and a couple days later, phoned the filmmaker/photographer Brian Solano. All came together, and we planned a three-week visit for October.
About five years ago, the Slo Pony guys —Onslo Carrington (Slo), originally from the West Indies, and Erik Ferjentsik (Pony), from the East Coast —showed up in Vietnam with the intention of starting a guiding outfit on Cat Ba, the baylargest island. wanted to develop a destination in a safe, sustainable manner,”says Ferjentsik, preserve the area for climbers and budget travelers.”The pair envisioned an Eden of beaches that hadnbecome resort-ridden like some of the Thailand climbing areas. First, though, they had to obtain permission from authorities to A) be the first foreigners to live on Cat Ba, B) start a business, and C) legitimately bolt, climb, and guide throughout the bay. It took a 15-month journey through Vietnamese paperwork, as well as perilous interviews with various authorities.
For the most part, the ”involved handing out bribes, drinking excessively with the locals, and consuming ”cuisine such as curdled goatblood with peanuts, chicken fetus, chicken feet, and once, says Ferjentsik, rice wine with a bird in it —like the whole bird, feathers and all.”Refusing the fare might have killed the deal, so Pony suffered through the drinking while Slo took on the eating. Their motivation to learn Vietnamese improved their chances with the authorities and also helped them gain respect among the locals, something still plainly evident if you walk with either of them through the markets. Soon, Slo Pony gained traction and the new-routing began. The team established several beautiful new sectors, so Ha Long Bay now has everything from land-locked climbs on Cat Ba Island, to cliffs rising from private beaches, to belay-from-your-boat cliffs. Slo Pony also re-bolted many of the corroded classics from the 1996 Skinner trip. In their 2009 guidebook, they document around 200 sport climbs, plus many DWS areas.
DWS hunting is time-consuming, since the bay is huge and both the junk boats and the short-distance dinghies top out around seven miles per hour. We often lived on a boat for several days at a time, sleeping throughout the bayzones”—sub-bays sparsely populated with floating residents —thus reducing the chance of pirates boarding our ship at night.
Ha Long Baywaters have dismal visibility —no more than 10 feet —so we sounded the depths by dragging a weighted cordelette along the sea floor. Ten feet of water was doable for climbs up to 30 feet, but anything taller needed at least 15 feet of water.
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