I have just returned from our Vietnam 2012 expedition, which was a great success. But where to start describing the expedition that I am calling one of the best I have ever organised. In short it was an epic adventure, which resulted in 103 new routes contributing to an extra 56% of existing routes in the area. But there was so much more to this trip then just the climbing.
Obviously I will start with food, as after all food is king (perhaps only rivaled by local knowledge). We were cooked three meals a day, with at least 4 or 5 dishes per meal. The meals normally consisted of whatever the crew had caught or on the unsuccessful days what they had brought from passing fishermen padded out by what was kept fresh on ice. Oriental fragrances of coconut, ginger, lemon grass and chili would drift throughout the mother ship and spill out onto the waters around the ship. The captain’s screams of An Kum would scratch down the radio calling us back for food and we would stop climbing and climb back aboard the basket boat that would chug back to the ship. Plates of massive prawns, squid, fresh fish, fresh fruit, spring rolls, chicken, pork, veg would be spread across the table.
Only after bellies were full would we talk of the morning heroics, splashdowns and near misses. Then write up any new routes achieved and mark the crags position on the expedition charts. The only problem with being fed so well was that lunch was often followed by a civilized snooze on deck as food was digested and the ship gently rocked in the lapping waves. It would take a couple of cups of coffee to drag us out of sleep before we were once more gathering drying chalk bags, soggy climbing shoes, and our bravery onto the basket boat so as to once more head of into the deep.
The area is a deep-water solo venue (deeping or psycobloc depending on where you are from). There are some sport routes in the area, and there are some epic trad routes to be had. But the real gems are those solo lines above deep water.
San expertly operated our basket boat. On arrival to a new cliff we would do a sweep of the base of the cliff probing the depths of the water with 3m long bamboo poles checking the water was deep enough and there were no protruding rocks. Once satisfied the boat would become a frenzy of everyone scrabbling their shoes on so as to be the first to be ready and get the pick of the unclimbed lines. Those ready would direct San into their point of attack. San would maneuver the boat into the wall and would, once the climber was established on the rock, throw the boat into reverse and rev it out from under the climbers line of fall giving them an open splash zone to fall/jump into.
Now everything was down to you the climber. Who would constantly weigh up what you were doing with the consequences of falling. The elation of making a move, holding the crimp or sticking the sloper was always translated into a heart thumping beat as you knew you were now even higher above the waiting water then before. Move after move you would climb further and further away, higher and higher with the inevitable fall becoming longer and longer. The real danger came on easy ground where before you knew it you were 15m+ above the beckoning tide below. The worst scenario was when you were able to gain a rest half way up the climb. Whether this was wedged between the wall and a tufa of rock, or your legs clamped around a tufa or standing on a ledge the result was the same. You had time enough to look around you realize how high above the water you were. It was much easier to handle if you were forced into continuing or simply running out of steam and dropping down to the sea below.
One last scan for jellyfish and then you jump. The air flowing past you hold your breath, close your legs, mouth and bring your arms in tight. After a thumping sploosh and the realization you were still in one piece you would float back to the surface with a broad smile across your face. This has to be one of the purest, whilst keeping relatively safe, form of climbing there is. Occasionally you didn’t make the next hand hold or your arm strength diminished before you got to the top or even more distressing is that the hold you had came off with you and now both are plummeting down to a watery finish. These were the drops were “family making abilities” were severely threatened and bruised, load slaps echoed around the walls and ohhs and ahhhs were heard from the basket boat as your companions felt your pain and wished for you to come to the surface unhurt.
We were amazing lucky. A team of 7 climbers over a period of 2 weeks had between them only one deep cut in an eyebrow, a jellyfish sting to the arm, throbbing arm slaps and plenty of dented pride.
It is funny how when you ask what the highlight of the expedition was to me or other expedition members you may find it odd to be told that it wasn’t the climbing but a night swim off the side of the boat. I have swum in phosphorescence before but this was on a whole different level. Millions of glowing sparks blazed around your body sending green eerie trails deep into the water below you and bright stars into the surrounding area. Swim strokes created glowing wings and fiery webbed legs. Water trickled down skin with rivulets of dancing lights. Nothing could have prepared us for such a sight and nothing would ever leave me bored of watching this ever-changing light show.
The unclimbed potential here is seemingly limitless as towers, arches, caves, narrow inlets, hidden lagoons and looming prows reveal themselves at every turn of the boat. Our mother ship with sea kayaks, and basket boat in tow would prowl these waterways pouncing on any unclimbed possibility with sea kayaks. Only once the depth had been checked and you had been up to them could you know that they were worth giving the order to drop anchor to the captain and crew.
The 15 days shot passed. The hours dropped away whilst climbing, swimming, kayaking, exploring, eating and sleeping our way through what has to be one of the best expeditions that I have organized. If, Iater, after reading this you have decided to head off there yourself on your expedition then please feel free to contact us or visit our in country information page for the expeditions notes. This will arm you with the knowledge to plan your expedition to carry on the climbing were we left off.