By Trango Athlete Skiy DeTray
Sitting here in these COVID-19 times its best we pursue domestic adventures, but its still fun to reminisce about the wonderful freedoms we had before the world locked its borders. Able to jump on a plane and enjoy exotic climbing and be submerged in a culture vastly different than our own. The following is an account of a magical climbing trip I took to Vietnam in the fall of 2019. Once the world opens back up I highly encourage you to put it on your bucket list!
I focus my attention as Ian gracefully forges ahead on a powerful on-sight. We’d just arrived in Huu Lung, Vietnam, a recently developed climber’s paradise. Still jet-lagged from our long journeys, the buttery (yet ultra high friction) limestone has us giddy. His breathing is rhythmic and his strong frame keeps him mysteriously attached to the wall.
Behind us, the picturesque landscape is strewn with countless karst formations. Up the meandering valleys, modest houses and a few villages are linked by miles and miles of rice fields.
“Come on Ian, you got it! Keep breathing! Looking good!”
I see a farmer walking across a field towards us. He is wearing solid green pants and an olive green shirt. From a distance, one could mistake him for a local military member, but this is how most farmers dress in the region. Drawn by our cries and his curiosity, the farmer continues towards us. Climbing in Huu Lung is very new. With its arrival, the people in this rural part of Northern Vietnam are being exposed to Westerners for the first time.
“Xin chao,” I say in greeting.
“Xin chao,” he replies, a big smile overtaking his face
“GAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” Ian lets out a war cry above as he pulls through the crux. I’m worried that the farmer resents climbers for disturbing the peace and quiet, but he seems happy to see us. Intrigued, he examines the rope, quick draws and shoes, and then settles in to watch Ian climb.
As Ian clips the anchor, the farmer raises his arms in victory and gives us the thumbs up. I quickly lower Ian to the ground and reach for my phone and switch on Google Translate.
“Would you like some money for us climbing here?” I say. The average salary of a rural farmer here is only around 1,500 USD annually.
“No, no, no,” the man proudly refuses. He looks almost offended.
“Thank you for letting us climb on your land,” I say. “My name is Skiy and this is Ian. Nice to meet you.”
Our conversation continues. We learn he has lived here his whole life, raised his family here along with a few acres of rice, and some livestock.
“Would you like to come to my house for tea?” he says.
“Absolutely!” I exclaim, into the translator. I pull the rope and pack up the equipment, interested to see how this man lives.
A few years ago, during my darkest days of cancer, I asked myself: If I only have a few years left to live, do I want to spend them standing at the bottom of a cliff? I decided no. I wanted to travel the world and experience the exotic sights and sounds. So that’s what I did. I visited 14 different countries in 2019 alone. I explored the deserts of Jordan and the chaos and vibrancy of Bangladesh. I visited the back roads and mountain villages of Laos, the temple of Angor Wat in Cambodia. I trekked into the mountains of Pakistan and found new adventures in Kenya and Myanmar. It was an incredible journey of self-discovery.
Now two years later, the calling of the stone tugs at my soul once again. I now realize I want to combine my two passions: traveling the world and climbing. I secured a remote job that allows me to work for two months at a time, and then gives me two months of freedom. It’s not always easy, especially as I get older. A new slew of injuries requires constant maintenance and causes regular setbacks. But I love the process and camaraderie that climbing provides. Once again on this trip to Vietnam, I am reminded: regardless of life’s stress, anxiety and hardship, once you tie in and start climbing, all the worries fall away. There is no room for it. Moving meditations of mind and body.
I feel it again now. Walking through the rice fields, I’m buzzing with that unique, but fleeting, feeling of euphoria. It returns with the same vigor almost every time. While the grades may change with my fitness, the mental and physical challenge holds constant – the bright ribbon that makes climbing so fantastic regardless of ability or level of progression.
Another five minutes of walking, and we arrive at the man’s house. It’s built like most of the houses in the region: two giant rooms stacked on top of each other, about 20’ x 50’. Big wooden beams hold the majority of the structure together, while teak wood walls give the rooms a cozy feel. I’m surprised to find no tables or chairs. Instead, there are just a few bamboo mats to sit on. The minimalism is a welcome and refreshing change.
His wife brings us some delicious green tea and places a plastic jug of rice whisky in front of us. Ian points out the two calendars. One is a big picture of Ho Chi Minh, who led the country to a Communist independence in 1945 against the French, and then again through the conflict with the US before his death in 1969. The other calendar has a picture of a jeep full of Viet Cong soldiers. I can’t help but think that this man in his late 30s had relatives that lived through the war and some that were probably killed during that tumultuous time. It’s heartbreaking that 58,000 Americans lost their lives, but I’m shocked to learn that over 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed. The Vietnamese did win the war, but sadly they paid an extremely heavy price.
I am unsure how he will feel about us being American. Surprisingly, as we reveal this to him through Google Translate, a big smile comes over his face. We take a shot of rice whisky together and shake hands.
“Thank you for coming to my house,” he says. “It’s an honor to have you here.”
I am vexed, thinking of how the past has shaped the people and this geopolitical landscape. It gives me hope in humanity; hope that one day the current foes of America will sit down with us as friends.
Climbing and international travel go together like coffee and cream. Perfectly! As soon as your passport is stamped, you enter a completely different world. A million cultural differences and mysteries. I love trying to unravel these differences. I can’t help but be completely in the moment. It’s fantastic to see how the rest of the world lives and this helps put into perspective the amazing things I take for granted in the USA like cutting edge medical treatment, clean tap water, nearly perfect roads to name a few. Climbing is the great denominator for people of all cultures. There is instant community at each new place I arrive to climb. It’s a bit of a hassle to drag all of my gear around, but in the end it keeps me fit and connected to one of my greatest passions.
Another day on the rock. The climbing in Huu Lung is entirely bolted with 70+ routes of 20-35 meters and grades ranging from easy (5.8) to challenging (5.13b). Its just the tip of the iceberg with hundreds of potential routes yet to come. The variety of holds makes for fun, thoughtful, and interesting climbing. The limestone is incredibly featured with everything from perfect open-handed calcified jugs, technical edges and pockets, and tufas (large and small) that makes for great laybacking and the occasional hand jam. Using off-width techniques honed from my years of Yosemite climbing, I’m able to find crazy rests – using the space between two enormous tufas to shake out. Jean, the French Hanoi resident that is the main developer for the area, has an incredible eye for linking features and holds to create routes with great flow. I’m pumped and ecstatic on nearly every route I try.
Afterwards, we pull into a small café/bar/pool hall a few kilometers from the cliff and order a few Saigon-labeled beers. The cold bottle feels amazing in my swollen and tired hands from a full day of climbing.
“Thanks for a great day brother,” I say to Ian, as we cheers and sink into comfortable chairs. “Let’s play some pool!”
Another reason I love climbing is the camaraderie I feel with climbing partners. Each time you tie in, your partner has your life in their hands, subconsciously creating a bond of trust beyond most other sports. And this bond extends past the crag and into life. Sitting here with Ian halfway across the world, I realize I haven’t seen my good friend from Bishop, CA in far too long and I’m thrilled to be able to shepherd him on his first international trip. Climbing brought us together years ago on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team, forging the undercurrent of our friendship. Now our friendship has expanded way past the bonds of climbing.
The evening starts to pick up in the café. The owners, a young Vietnamese couple, put on some dance music as I rack up the balls. Folks are coming in dressed clean and sharp and are surprised and delighted to see us. One very skinny older man comes up and squeezes Ian’s bicep.
“Wow! Very strong! Good, good,” he says. He puts his arm down on the pool table in the arm wrestling position. Eager to see the show, everyone eggs Ian on. He reluctantly agrees.
After he quickly wins one match, another competitor replaces him. This buys instant favor with the table of twelve extended family members sitting off in the corner.
“Come sit with us,” a man says to me. Within moments, food and drink are placed in front of me. These people are some of the friendliest and most hospitable on earth, I think to myself. I take note of the a large white bowl with a large piece of ice in it – 6 inches of deep pure clear rice whisky. Before I know it, I’m cheersing over and over with a few of the men. My head is spinning with the constant beat of dance music, rice whisky, and the rapid and fascinating tones of the Vietnamese language echoing off the walls. I wonder to myself how many of these local folks will take to climbing and how it will change their life trajectory either through climber homestays, guiding, or through pure sport.
A crowd has gathered around Ian now, who is taking on his fourth opponent. Each challenger seems bigger than the last. Then Ian taps my shoulder and whispers: I think I just injured my elbow. I let a few obscenities out and realize our climbing trip may be over. Luckily, we are in a land of unique mystery and beauty and we don’t necessarily need climbing to have a fantastic time.
As we pull into the climber home stay and hostel built by Vietclimb.com, everyone is back from their day of climbing. Two young Australian medical students regale us with hilarious commentary on their day’s sends and fails. Two Brits strum away on their guitars, trying to impress the recently arrived American women. I’m surprised to learn the two from Singapore are investment bankers and one graduated from MIT with a master’s degree in artificial intelligence. We are delighted to retell our tail of the arm wrestling championships! Great conversation was in no short supply this night.
Though Ian’s elbow swells, it doesn’t stop him from climbing and we finish our time sampling a few more routes before saying our final farewells in Hanoi.