Limestone & Excitement

Vietnam has a lot of limestone. They use it to make concrete (as in scraping massive limestone karsts away bit by bit), they use it to make temples (as in, put a shrine in a cool looking cave), and we use it to climb on (as in, put in some bolts and let’s do a little sport climbing).
I’m hardly a good climber, but I do enjoy it. This weekend, I was able to go out with the folks at VietClimb for the first time to the climbing crag about 25km to the west of Hanoi in the rural district (huyện) Quốc Oai, right on the premises of the Hoang Xa temple (Chùa Hoàng Xá).
I took a taxi out there because I’m still a bit terrified to drive a motorbike through the traffic of Hanoi. It’s just too easy for me to imagine myself smashed up by an idiot truck driver or cut-off by some punk kid texting on his phone. Though many Vietnamese text while riding their motorbikes, young boys here, like in most places in the world, are the absolute most dangerous people on the road. Lucky for those of us in Hanoi, taxis are not terribly expensive. For me, the $15 cab fare in a Thanh Nga taxi is like insurance and well worth it.
I wasn’t exactly sure where the crag was. Jean, the owner of the VietClimb gym and the main architect of the bolted sport routes in Quoc Oai, said there was a map on the website, on the Facebook page, etc, but I couldn’t find it. At least I knew to look for the temple. As you drive out of Hanoi, though, it’s pretty flat. When you see a big limestone rock rise from the rice paddies, and it’s the only one around for miles, it’s probably a good guess that you’re in the right place.
It turns out, I was. I wandered around the town for a few minutes asking where the temple was and quickly found a group of folks crowded along a narrow dirt path, climbers aloft and belayers below. I was in the right spot.
I climbed four routes and then my forearms were done. Though I go pretty regularly to the VietClimb gym, climbing short indoor routes doesn’t necessarily give you the endurance to climb long routes up. It’s more incentive to do more outdoor climbing. Despite being weak, I enjoyed the routes because, for a beginner like me, there were plenty of big handholds to rest on. I made it to the top of three routes, and gave up on the longest one. Next time.
It was fun being outside, it was fun climbing, it was even fun hearing the man in the rice paddy yelling something at the water buffalo. I even enjoyed the view from up high a few times. Next time, I’ll climb up there with my camera.
What makes the spot special is not necessarily the routes; you can probably find more spectacular stuff elsewhere. Rather, it’s the setting. We’re in a rural village just outside Hanoi where life doesn’t appear to have changed much in the past one hundred years, except by what is in the shops and how people get around. Buildings are run-down, people work in the fields. There just isn’t a whole lot going on. Still, there was something really charming about the place.
What is charming about a town trapped in poverty? Nothing. Except perhaps their reaction to me, seeming to be the only westerner they’ve ever seen, when you consider these folks only live about 25km outside Hanoi, have motorbikes, and likely have been to Hanoi many times. After I finished climbing, I headed to look for a taxi along the big Thăng Long highway that runs into Hanoi. I walked through the rice paddies where people were bailing water from irrigation ditches into the paddies. At a bend in the path, there was an old lady, young boy, and a guy on a motorbike watching. The boy shouted “Westerner!” (in Vietnamese of course). I said, “Yes, there is a Westerner here.” The kid didn’t hear me because he was too busy pointing me out to his friend who just rode up, but a man on the motorbike chuckled. I should have asked, “Where?”
It seems strange that so close to Hanoi, the presence of a westerner can be the source of excitement. It must seem equally strange to someone living in Hoàng Xá that a big limestone rock that has been in their village forever would be the source of a westerner’s excitement.

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