Rock Climbing, Kayaking, and Getting Back to the Art of Travel {Cat Ba Island}

This past winter the stars aligned and I took off to Southeast Asia. I’d had this trip in the back of my mind pretty much since I returned from South America in 2010. Having not left the country in nearly four years, wanderlust got the best of me and I booked a flight a month before I left the country.

Advance planning is not really my thing.

With a glance at the Vietnam chapter in a Lonely Planet guidebook, I headed for Cat Ba Island to go climb rocks with Asia Outdoors. After watching videos of Chris Sharma for years, talking about how rad it would be to free climb over water, and bouldering at a gym a handful of times, it was time to get on some proper rocks. In Asia. Apparently life was too busy at home.

Upon arrival, I knew immediately I’d be staying a bit longer than the couple of days I had thought would suffice. Cat Ba is an easy place to love. And she most certainly seduced me with her charms. A sleepy little town facing a rocky harbor filled with boldly colored fishing boats is not a bad place for a photographer to hang out for a while.

Not to mention the stunning limestone formations surrounding the island on the ferry ride over. And the steep, winding roads through the jungle en route to town. It’s a beautiful island and there is plenty to explore by boat, motorbike, and your two trusty feet.

It’s quiet places like Cat Ba that I seek when traveling. Especially at the start of a trip when I haven’t been out of the western world in several years. It’s easy to feel safe in a place like this because, well, it IS safe.

(Months later I would realize, while walking home from a bar in Thailand at 5am, that SE Asia is incredibly benign. At least the places I visited seemed to be so.)

Also, destinations like Cat Ba attract like-minded people. Those looking to get slightly off the beaten path, away from the overly touristed spots and all-you-can-drink backpacker bars. Travelers looking for a bit more adventure than an exotic bar crawl.

Though I will admit The Good Bar is one of my favorites in the world. But I digress.

There are a few people I met on this unique island that became instantaneous friends and I certainly hope to meet again somewhere in the world. Though, of course, the bittersweet part of travel is saying goodbye to those wonderful individuals never knowing if you will indeed see them again.

Que será, será.

So you learn to live in the present. To soak up the sights, sounds, smells, tastes. To be open to (mostly) everything. And to enjoy it all as much as humanly possible. A life long lesson to be sure, but made that much easier to understand when floating around from place to place.

Travel, combined with some good old Vipassana meditation, definitely makes you think less about the past.

As for the future? Only your next meal / destination / adventure matters. At least for the duration of your trip. And so I spent 10 glorious days in this little piece of paradise eating my weight in seafood, learning to ride a motorbike, exploring turquoise lagoons on kayaks, and waiting for the tides to come in for deep water soloing which, as it turns out, is really effing scary for someone who doesn’t much care for heights.

Realizing you climbed too high, don’t know how to get back down, and therefore have to jump into the water from where you are is terrifying.

To the point where you consider that maybe you can just hug that piece of rock for the rest of your life.

I made it down (obviously), but now clearly understand I prefer to climb with ropes, thank you very much. Fortunately Lan Ha Bay and Butterfly Valley on Cat Ba have bolted routes of all levels for some spectacular sport climbing.


And now I have become completely addicted to climbing up rocky walls. In fact I tend to forget I’ve only been climbing consistently for a few months and end up frustrated that I’m not progressing faster. That I’m still scared to top out on harder bouldering problems. That I’m still afraid of heights.

You’d think the yoga addiction would have taught me something about patience, but that’s another quality that takes a lifetime of practice. Especially for a girl from New York who only 4 years ago ditched her heels for a backpack.

Regardless, I’m so glad to have finally given this adrenaline fueled sport a shot. It’s incredibly rewarding in so many ways: rock solid forearms, getting past a crux after falling over and over, figuring out a technique for short people that your tall climber friends can’t pull off.

The list goes on.

And, something that hadn’t really occurred to me, is that you meet the most awesome of people. People that prefer to get up early, be outside all day, and genuinely enjoy what life has to offer.

I don’t even care (that much) about hunting down Chris Sharma anymore.


I get asked quite a bit about the accommodations on my travels. Well, let me tell you that the low season in Cat Ba gives you the best bang for your buck in SE Asia.

After realizing that the Fantasea Hotel was robbing me at $25 a night – and without a sea view! – I checked out several guesthouses and hotels along the harbor.

I looked at rooms as low as $5 USD a night, but decided to splurge on the Hai Long Hotel at $12 USD a night. This was my lovely room:

And THIS was my even lovelier view: