Deep water solo in Cat Ba, Vietnam

Climbing the islets of Cat Ba
Climbing the islets of Cat Ba

Before I ever tried deep water soloing, I thought it sounded pleasant and refreshing. The basic idea is that you are climbing a route that is over water, so if you fall, you will land in the water. I like climbing, and I like water, so it sounded like an activity that I would like.

The actual experience was a lot more adrenaline-filled than I'd expected. The routes are much higher than land bouldering routes. Falling into the water from a bad position can be dangerous and painful. The mental game was the hardest part for me. I felt a lot of fear, but feeling the fear and continuing to try in spite of the fear was exhilarating.

How to sign up for deep water solo in Cat Ba

At the bouldering gym in Hanoi, Vietnam, I met another traveler who had just returned from deep water soloing in Cat Ba. He had gone with the group Cat Ba Climbing, and he recommended them with rave reviews. At the time of my visit, December 2022, it was hard to find information online because their website didn't work, and none of their social media pages had recent posts. However, when I arrived at their office in Cat Ba, they were up and running. At that time of year, they were only doing deep water solo tours in the morning because the tide would be too low to go in the afternoon. I signed up for the next morning.

I highly recommend going with an experienced tour group if you are planning to deep water solo. A lot of things about deep water solo are not common knowledge. Operating a boat, finding good routes by boat, knowing when the tide is safe, and falling into water from tall heights are all things that they will guide you with. Some travelers I met almost hired a non-climbing local to take them in his boat for deep water solo. Luckily they canceled after talking to some local climbers because otherwise they would have gone out when the tide was dangerously low. As operations are always evolving, I'd recommend checking online to see if the tour groups have updated their online presence with more info.

My deep water solo experience

Meeting a boatful of climbers

When I arrived on the morning of the deep water solo tour, the office was bustling with people getting ready for their day of climbing, either deep water solo or sport climbing on other parts of the island. The deep water solo group was loaded up into a van and brought to the harbor at Lan Ha Bay. There were 12 people there to deep water solo that day, and we were divided into 2 boats. One guide announced that his boat would be taking the advanced climbers and that they would do hard climbs. The other guide would visit easier climbs. I opted for the easier group. I was joined by a Dutch couple and 3 guys from Vancouver. The other members of our boat included our main guide "B", a newly hired guide from Australia who was shadowing, and our boat driver.

Our boat for the day
Our boat for the day

We take the boat to the climbs

We started boating out. During the 40-minute ride to the first climbing area, I chatted with the guides and the other travelers. I learned about how B became a deep water solo guide. A Vietnamese local, he wasn't a climber before he joined Cat Ba Climbing. But while the tourism industry was suffering during the height of the pandemic, B learned how to climb, and became a guide for Cat Ba Climbing once travel opened back up. The other guides at the office looked like foreigners; I don't think climbing has caught on in Vietnam as much as it has in other countries.

We sailed by many karst islets on our way to the climbs
We sailed by many karst islets on our way to the climbs

How to fall

As we got closer to the climbing area, B explained to us how to fall into the water. When you first jump from the wall, keep your torso upright, but spread your arms and legs out to the side. Your outspread limbs will prevent you from tilting sideways over the course of the fall. When you approach the water, straighten up: pin your legs together and your arms to your sides. Flex your feet. The bottoms of your feet will break the water first and create a safe space for the rest of your body to enter.

Our first deep water solo climbs

B first took us to an islet with a few beginner and intermediate climbs. I'd estimate we started with VB-V2 level climbs. Two of the Vancouver guys went first. B used a laser pointer to show them where to go. In the meantime, our Australian guide fired up a bucket of coals to help keep us warm. The rest of us had our turns at climbing as well. We were able to have a few people climb at a time, either on different routes or spread across a traverse route. B sent us all on VB-level climbs while he assessed our technique, both in climbing and in falling. On the easy route, it was a little alarming how quickly I gained height. When I reached the end, B called out, That's the end! Jump! The jump was scary but manageable. The Dutch couple and I were more advanced climbers, so B started sending us on harder climbs.

From the boat, our guide points the laser pointer at the next hold on the climb
From the boat, our guide points the laser pointer at the next hold on the climb

Even though the weather was not cold, and the water was not cold, being wet outside of the water was very cold, especially in the shade of the islets. Eventually all of the climbers were shivering and huddling around the bucket of coals. We had a moment of respite when our boat moved into the sun for a break. We snacked on ambarellas and tiny bananas. Then it was time to move to another spot to climb again.

The bucket of coals to provide some warmth on the boat
The bucket of coals to provide some warmth on the boat

A fearful fall

There's one climb where I hardly remember the actual climb, only the fall. At the top, there was a little ledge where you stand and face out from the wall and take take a good look at just how high you are. Something about the ledge made it feel uncomfortable to jump from. It was slightly tucked in to the wall, so you had to make sure to jump away from the wall to avoid hitting anything on the way down. Down in the boat, looking very small and very far, the Australian guide called out, Jess, JUMP! I kept standing there, trying to gather my willpower to fight against my instincts which were strongly telling me DO NOT JUMP. Feeling bad about everyone waiting for me on the boat, my heart beating faster and faster, I finally jumped, but I didn't orient my body very well. My nether regions got hit with the impact, and I was in some pain for the rest of the day. We had a few more climbs after this, so luckily I was able to make up for my bad jump.

Here's one of the taller climbs that we did
Here's one of the taller climbs that we did

One last climb

In the end, the other girl and I were the last ones climbing; everyone else was spent. As our boat started away from the climbs, the girl confided in me that she wanted to keep climbing and that it was too bad everyone was done. I said I'd keep going if she did, so we convinced the guides to take us to one more climb before turning in. The time had passed by so quickly.

My tips for deep water solo

  1. If you are prone to seasickness, take Dramamine or your sea-sickness medicine of choice before getting on the boat.
  2. Bring something warm to wear that can get wet. I brought a rainjacket which was pretty effective. A lot of the others had synthetic insulated jackets which I was jealous of. I didn't bring pants but I wish I had.
  3. Bring a towel. I was happy with my travel-size quick-dry towel which I could wring out when it got too wet. Because we are getting in and out of the water for every climb, the towel got soaked through pretty often.
  4. Wear a well-fitting swimsuit, something that isn't going to fly off your chest when you plunge into the water at high speed. I wore a fitted training swimsuit that worked out well.
  5. Take lots of pictures and videos. If you are traveling solo, as I was, ask another tourist to help you take photos. I was lucky, and one traveler in the group took the initiative to take some photos for me.
  6. Don't think about it too hard. Just do it!

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