Cat Ba climbing is a little slice of island paradise.
Beaches, great weather, and excellent climbing. What’s not to like.
In 2018 I had the opportunity to spend the majority of a month there. I quickly found myself falling in love with the place.
Before going there I really didn’t know what I would encounter. But after arriving I quickly discovered that I wished I would’ve planned to stay longer.
Cat Ba’ Climbing is great. Though pound for pound it can’t compete with the shear quantity or diversity found at some of the other SE Asia climbing spots like Thakhek or Tonsai, it has its own charm which sucks you in.
Don’t get me wrong, the climbing at Cat Ba is good. It just hasn’t been developed yet to be what I would consider “world class”.
When compared to Tonsai, Cat Ba has a great range of climbing style and grades which haven’t become super polished yet. Not to mention, with Tonsai’s recent closures, Cat Ba has now become the spot in SE Asia for DWS.
Besides the climbing, the island itself has a relaxed vibe, a great change of pace compared to your average city.
There are also some other fun things to do on your rest days such as visit the national park, visit the islands beautiful beaches or go kayaking.
Cat Ba has a relatively small but devout climbing community. If you’re looking for partners, the Cat Ba Climbers page makes it easy to find one.
Also if you’re looking for free rent, Cat Ba is probably the most convenient place in SE Asia to stay and volunteer in the climbing shops. It also has great wifi so it is a great place to settle down and work remote for all those digital nomads out there.
I’ve assembled this guide to give you everything you need to know to go climbing at Cat Ba Island!
In this guide you will find:
- Rock Climbing Cat Ba
- How To Get To There
- When Is the Best Time To Go
- Where to Stay
- Where to Get Essential Supplies
- Wifi and Power At Cat Ba Island
- The Climbing Community at Cat Ba
- What To Do On Your Rest Days At Cat Ba
Overview of the Rock Climbing at Cat Ba
There is a range of climbing on Cat Ba, but it can be generally divided into two types, sport climbing at various crags around the island, and DWS in Ha Long Bay.
For the sport climbing, there are a few thing you need to know.
For one, you’re going to need a scooter (or taxi) to get to the crags. Lucky, they can be rented nearly everywhere around the island, and for really cheap.
A full day rental is around 80,000 VND (3.50$). No paperwork or license required, gotta love Vietnam!
Another thing to know is that you need to get ‘safety checked’ before you can go to most of the crags around the island.
The safety checks can be completed at Cat Ba Climbing. Depending on what crag you choose to go to determines which place you need to get safety checked.
Previously to climb at Butterfly Valley, you had to get safety checked at Asia Outdoors. Unfortunately as of 2019, Asia Outdoors has been closed. Go to Cat Ba Climbing for up-to-date information on access once you arrive.
Climbing – Butterfly Valley
Butterfly Valley is the biggest crag on the island in terms of routes and arguably the best crag at Cat Ba. A must visit!
Its exact location can be found here. It takes about 35min from Cat Ba Town to arrive on scooter.
The roads are all well maintained, and once you get close there are signs to direct you towards the correct parking lot.
The climbing here is featured limestone, with a lot of pockets and cracks to use for holds. There is a mix of vertical to very overhung routes to choose from.
The rock is superb quality, though at times the less popular routes are a little dirty. A helmet is essential. Holds break frequently here (same as everywhere else in the island).
The setting itself is extremely pretty, surrounded by local farms and green mountains. Once you’ve arrived you feel like you have truly escaped the chaos which normally dominates SE Asian towns.
Mother Butterfly (6a+) – A great warmup.
Elephant Man (6b+) – The best 6b+ you’ll ever climb. A pocketed crack that gives you lots of hands, but your feet are a different story. Super.
Buffalo Love (7a+) – A Dihedral crack leads to a slabby face up top. Excellent.
Prayer of the Mantis (7b) – Arete climbing at its finest. Thin and technical.
Climbing – Hidden Valley
The second biggest crag on Cat Ba. This has a nice range of climbing suitable for everyone. Make sure to get your pass from Mr Zoom at Cat Ba Climbing!
The climbing here is characteristic of the rest of Cat Ba, featuring vertical faces and powerful overhangs.
Bring your bug repellent because the mosquitos can be oppressive, especially after a rainstorm.
Monocle Man (7a+) – Starts vertical with the technical crux down low, finishes with a steep pumpfest!
Green Lungs (5c+) – Probably the best warm up around. Very fun.
The Shampoo Effect (7b+) – Nails. Slabby start leads to a merciless pumpfest.
Climbing – Ben Beo Harbour
Is it just me or are these routes all sandbagged? I’m sure it’s not last night’s beer talking.
Great climbs on surprising polish rock. Expect to have a few locals stop to watch you throw yourselves at the wall.
This place has its own charm because it is overlooking the Ben Beo Harbour, so you get some cool views for pictures.
Not a bad day out, especially if you’re looking to get your confidence crushed.
Egyption Submission Position (7a+) – Good climbing with a few different cruxes
Animal (7b) – Thin climbing to start leads to a nice rest, then punch out of the cave.
Climbing – The Cave
The Cave is a small crag, great for a rainy day as the routes are mostly protected. And only about a 5 min drive from Cat Ba Climbing.
The cave is on private property, so you’ll have to pay the landowner around 10,000 VND. He’ll point you in the direction of the path.
There are a nice mix of climbs here, a few fun warm ups and a couple hard roof routes if you’re keen. It’s a relatively small crag so you could probably try most of the routes in a day. The routes are very fun so I would highly suggest trying it out.
Love Handles (6a+) – A great warmup.
Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds (6c+) – Vertical climbing leads to a steep finish on good holds. Very fun.
Fistfull of Stalagtite – (7a+) – The king line of the crag, an absolute must try. Swarming wasps cost me my onsite, but I’m sure they’re gone by now…
Are The Bolts At Cat Ba Safe?
The climbing at Cat Ba was in the past divided between Asia Outdoors and Cat Ba Climbing.
Asia Outdoors was in charge of Butterfly Valley, the Cave and Ben Beo. Cat Ba Climbing was in charge of The Farm and Hidden Valley.
In 2019, Asia Outdoors decided to permanently close their doors. For that reason Cat Ba Climbing is now the Island’s authority for climbing.
The bolts in these sectors where overseen by these organizations when then were installed, and for that reason they are generally very high quality.
There are some areas which were originally bolted with expansion bolts and now need to be replaced. For that reason there are some ongoing reporting efforts.
This is especially the case for areas close to the ocean.
If you are concerned with the bolting, feel free to inquire at Cat Ba Climbing.
Though at a similar latitude as Tonsai, the climate at Cat Ba is much more mild. In addition, much of the climbing is located inland aware from the saltwater.
For these reasons, Cat Ba does not have the same issues as Tonasi does for bolting.
If you are climbing some of the less common routes, or if you’re traveling to an obscure crag overlooking the sea, such as The Face, it is possible that you will still find some original expansion bolts.
For these areas I highly suggest inquiring at Cat Ba prior to attempting to climb.
If you plan on sticking to the popular areas such as Butterfly Valley or Hidden Valley, you do not have to worry about bolt quality.
Deep Water Solo (DWS) at Cat Ba
Cat Ba has quickly become the best place in Southeast Asia for deep water soloing, and for a good reason.
There are hundreds of established routes, thousands of possibilities and one of the most beautiful settings you’ll ever see, what’s not to like?
To go, book a tour through Cat Ba Climbing. Tours run every day the tide is over 2m, and cost around 830,000 VND (36$) as of July 2018.
Though it is possible, I highly advise against going without a guide.
The DWS here is a unique experience you are unlikely to experience anywhere else in the world. I highly suggest it.
The crag you go to will vary depending on tides, weather, and experience level of the climbers in your boat.
How To Get To Cat Ba Island
The closest major city is Hanoi and from there it takes about 4 hours to arrive. There are many bus companies to choose from.
I used Good Morning CatBa and found that they were very professional. They picked me up on time from my hostel, and dropped me off in front of my accommodation at Cat Ba.
I paid 250,000VND for the way there, and 180,000VND for the way back. Your best strategy is to ask around and haggle because there is a lot of competition.
Usually the cost is more if you book from your hotel/hostel vs visiting the office themselves (about 100,000VND more).
When Is the Best Time To Go To Cat Ba?
Most people don’t know this, but it actually gets relatively cold in North Vietnam in the winter. For that reason it has some of the best climbing temperatures in SE Asia.
The highs in the winter range between 18-20 degrees, and in the summer they go up to 30-35.
The summers are not only hot, but wet. Expect rain most days, though the rocks dry very fast. The winters on the other hand, see little rain.
This lack of rain coupled with low temperatures make it prime climbing season Dec-Feb.
Compared to other places nearby, such as Thakhek and Tonsai, the climbing season is actually quite long.
You can climb here year round if you want, which certainly isn’t the same case for most other SE Asia climbing destinations.
One very nice thing about Cat Ba, is that it just doesn’t see the crowds at the crags like the other locations do. It is unlikely that you’ll have the crags to yourself, however, I wouldn’t expect to queue up much.
Prices go up in the summer months as this is when the island sees more Vietnamese travelers. The ‘high season’ generally starts somewhere in late May or early June. Even more reason to go in the winter.
Where to Stay in Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba is a popular spot for non-climber backpackers and Vietnamese tourists. For that reason there is an abundance of cheap accommodation available.
Hostels range anywhere from 3-7 USD per night. Hotels can be found starting at 6 USD a night.
Keep in mind that usually the very cheap hostels/ hotels charge extra for AC, which is absolutely essential in the summer months.
Don’t book online if you don’t have to, the prices are always cheaper if you show up in person. Also, try to haggle if you plan on staying for an extended period of time.
Prices go up on the weekends as the town gets flooded with Vietnam tourists from nearby Hanoi.
Pro Tip: Cat Ba Climbing has a dorm room with 8 beds they rent out. I was paying 50,000 VND a night. It is a great place to go meet climbers if you’re traveling solo.
Where to Get Essential Supplies
First, if you don’t have your own gear, it can all be rented at Cat Ba Climbing no problem.
They have plenty of high quality gear, but it gets expensive if you’re climbing more than a few days.
The guide book is currently out of print, though it is available online, there are printed copies available at Cat Ba Climbing.
If you ask, they let you take pictures of the topos, so there is no need to buy one yourself.
Food at the restaurants is very cheap. For a more basic meal, ie fried rice or noodles, expect to pay 25,000 – 30,000 VND.
More ‘expensive’ food such as the fish costs closer to 80,000 VND. The seafood at Cat Ba is amazing. All of it is fresh caught, cheap and tasty.
There are a few markets in town, but they raise their prices so dramatically for tourist, you almost end up paying the same as you would at a restaurant.
The way they intended it, to be sure. The biggest one near the town can be found here. Go and test your negotiating skills.
The beer in Vietnam is in general laughably cheap. Expect to pay 10,000 – 20,000 VND per bottle.
But what’s even cheaper is the local brew called ‘Bai Hoi’ (fresh beer), which can be found for around 5,000 VND. For that reason, Vietnam is generally referred to as having the cheapest beer on the planet.
Bai Hoi can be found in a few spots on the island. The best place I found was located only a few minutes from Like Cafe. Look for the yellow chairs!!
Food, Water and Restaurants in Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba has a range of small mini-marts and markets where you can buy food. The problem is that if you’re a foreigner, they usually charge you anywhere between 3-10x the local price for food.
Normally I would say that you can negotiate the price down, but they vendors all have an agreement to charge foreigners a certain price, meaning that they will never drop the price anywhere near the local one.
This generally means that it is about the same price to purchase food at the market as it is to simply go to one of the many restaurants in town (which was the intention to be sure).
In that regard there is no shortage of options. The food at Cat Ba is absolutely delicious. The seafood is particularly good here. You can get fish, clams, oysters and shrimp at a fraction of the price you would find in any western country.
Here were a few of my favorite places, but just about anywhere on the island is good!
Buddha Belly – Delicious vegetarian and vegan food. The hot pot is the way forward.
Like Cafe – Some of the best coffee and fastest internet in town. A perfect place for the digital nomads to get some work done.
Yummy – The are two ‘Yummy’ cafes in town, aptly named Yummy 1 and Yummy 2. Good cheap and fast food.
The water at Cat Ba is not advisable to drink. You can buy large jugs or water or water bottles all over town.
Wifi and Power At Cat Ba Island
Unlike some other climbing spots in SouthEast Asia such as Tonsai, Cat Ba has power 100% of the time, and has wifi at every single restaurant and cafe.
For that reason, Cat Ba is a perfect place for digital nomads, looking to get some work done before or after going climbing for the day!
The Climbing Community at Cat Ba
The climbing community at Cat Ba is strong but constantly growing. During the fall-spring season, you should expect to find climbers quite easily.
However, the community is in no way as large as Tonsai for instance. So if you’re unlucky, you may need to ask around. A very good way to find climbers is to leave up notes at Cat Ba Climbing, or post on the Cat Ba Climbing FB group.
What To Do On Your Rest Days At Cat Ba
Lan Ha Bay
At Lan Ha Bay, towers of rocks shoot up out of the ocean seemly out of nowhere. This otherworldly landscape is what first made Cat Ba Island famous for tourists.
This is most likely the most popular tourist attraction on Cat Ba island. There are daily boat trips which head out to Lan Ha Bay. There are single day or multiple-day trips available.
This is one of the highlights of Cat Ba, and definitely worth checking out. The landscape is very similar in Lan Ha Bay to what you’ll see if you do a DWS solo trip. So I wouldn’t do both if I was you.
Cat Ba Beach(s)
There are a ton of beaches around Cat Ba, but the three most popular are Cat Ba Beach 1, Beach 2 and Beach 3. Located only about a 15-20min walk from Cat Ba Climbing, they make for a nice day out.
Pro Tip: There are literally dozens of other beaches to choose from on Cat Ba. If you have a motorbike, you can take a quick ride out of town and not find another person!
The only tricky thing is that many times it is on private property, so ask at Cat Ba Climbing or your hotel for recommendations.
Explore the Island on MotorBike
One of my favorite things I did at Cat Ba was rent the motorbikes. This might sound scary to those of you without much riding experience. The roads on Cat Ba are for the most part very calm, and therefore serve for a great place to practice riding!
To rent the bike for the day only costs between $4-$7 in addition to about $3 of fuel you have to buy on your own.
Pro Tip: Only buy fuel from official gas stations around the island, or you will be charged anywhere from 2-10x more.
Vietnam is also ridiculously relaxed with it comes to rental policies. Simply ask as just any hotel/hostel in town, and they will bring the bike to you a few minutes later.
No paperwork, or proof of license required. Love it.
Cat Ba National Park
Another highlight of Cat Ba. About half of the island is a national park. In 2004, it was designated as a UNESCO land reserve. Lucky you can enter for a day hike, or even camp and spend the night if you choose!
The park is home to a range of endangered animals, the most notable being the small monkey the Cat Ba Langur. There are only thought to be about 60 of them remaining in the world, so if you would be very lucky indeed to see one!
Cat Ba is a must visit. It has one of the best mixes of any climbing destination I’ve gone to. Not to mention, it is the spot to go for a budget traveler.
You can live here for 10$ a day without breaking a sweat.
It is a place that a lot of people show up expecting to stay a few days, but instead stay much longer.
You’ll actually find a pretty large group of expats at the climbing shops who have lived here for years.
And really, I don’t blame them. Life is good on Cat Ba. Cheap living, great food, beautiful scenery, and enough climbing to keep you busy for years. Vietnamese paradise.
More reading like this see: “The Top 6 Rock Climbing Towns in South America” and “Tonsai Climbing – The Ridiculously Excellent Guide”