WHAT’S IT LIKE…guiding rock climbing in Vietnam?
It’s like joining a family of adventurous travelers who can’t seem to keep their feet planted on the ground!
Over the past couple of weeks, Adam and I had the fantastic pleasure of working with an adventure company called Asia Outdoors located on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Cat Ba is the largest island in Ha Long Bay, Northern Vietnam’s famously picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site.The staff of Asia Outdoors welcomed us in with open arms, just as they do with all people, introducing us to the world of rock climbing. We contacted Asia Outdoors based on their solid reputation for being an ethically-minded tourism company that employs excellent guides from around the world, being the only licensed rock climbing company on Cat Ba Island and their policy of hiring and training local staff along with foreigners–contributing to sustainable tourism in the area.On our first day working with Asia Outdoors, we were lucky to start training alongside climbing guides Jason Larcerna and Max Matheson, both experienced climbers. They were extremely helpful in teaching us about the sport and essential to helping us understand what a typical climbing guide’s day is like on Cat Ba. We started by meeting guests, fitting them with shoes, bringing gear together and getting everyone to the boat.
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After a short taxi ride, we were off on our journey to Lan Ha Bay where we rolled up to a tiny private sand beach and began preparing the climbing for the morning! Max and Jason confidently set-up and tested the equipment, then helped each of the guests find routes that were challenging but appropriate for different skill levels.
Our first day of climbing in the area was actually our FIRST DAY OF CLIMBING! Yes, indeed, Adam and I had never top-rope climbed outside before. The experience was a great way to see how guides teach introductory climbers, how much you can do even on your first day and helped us learn more details about the sweet job of guiding the sport. Right away, we were taught how to tie our own figure-eight knot, given excellent advice and loads of encouragement as we scaled the limestone karsts. And, of course, we ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!!! I didn’t want to admit it, but my fingertips were burning by the end of our morning, with my legs shaking uncontrollably and it was wonderful. The views from above were SPECTACULAR!! We were hooked instantly. I didn’t expect climbing to feel so very personal, immediately making you want to push your own boundaries and re-defining what you believe you are capable of. This is exactly what we look for in our new adventures!
Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect because we arrived the same week that many staff members were leaving and their replacements were arriving to start their new contracts. I say this was perfect because we got to meet so MANY staff members and hear about their experiences working as a guide for Asia Outdoors. Office Manager Andrea Callen from Canada stated, “There’s just something about this country that spoke to me from the moment I crossed the border. Everyone talks about the friendliness of the people in South East Asia, but in Vietnam I feel like I’m part of the family.” Several employees commented they were surprised at how much they learned about the value of team when running this small business in a foreign country, while others found the experience to be an excellent introduction into teaching, sharing what they had been taught about rock climbing years before.
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The Positives: Living in Cat Ba is paradise for many climbers. In addition to several easy to moderate climbs available during work and days off in Lan Ha Bay, there is an area nearby the harbor accessible by motorbike called Butterfly Valley that has over 60 sport-climbing routes of all levels, making it possible to gain loads of rock climbing experience during your stay in Cat Ba including Deep Water Solo training. This is especially helpful to work towards guide certifications in the future! In addition to climbing, the company offers gorgeous kayaking and hiking opportunities in Lan Ha Bay. Asia Outdoors workers and volunteers have access to housing with assistance from the company as well as use of equipment for time-off climbing making even volunteering a sweet deal for any traveler who wants to get out and sharpen techniques while stretching world exploring funds.
The Negatives: Cat Ba is a small island and has little to do outside of outdoor adventures. There is no big theater, supermarket or shopping mall. Travelers looking to stay in one place for an immersive experience need to be able to feel content entertaining themselves very simply. The Asia Outdoors staff varies in size from 10-20 people throughout the year, so it is a small to medium family depending on the season. There is internet access most of the time, but it flickered many days while we worked on island. There are very clear seasons for the area, with rain and cold taking over in winter months. Summer is high season, filling the streets with tourists flocking to see the beauty of the area.
Housing, Transportation and Money: Every staff member of Asia Outdoors is given the chance to live in the same apartment building rent-free. This family works together and plays together for sure–and they have so much fun doing it! While we were on Cat Ba, we loved having a motorbike to get out of the town’s main harbor. Some of the staff bought bikes for around $200 USD, but they can be rented in town for $3 per day as well. Costs are very low in this area, similar to other parts of Vietnam, with food hovering somewhere beween $2-$5 for most meals in a restaurant, beer less than $1, and very good coffee for $1-$2. Working in this area has so many awesome benefits, but the money earned is not a huge incentive to stay. Some staff told us they break even, some save a little, but in general, working here is an exchange for awesome experiences, rock climbing knowledge and new friendships–totally worth it to us!
How Can You Guide Rock Climbing in Vietnam? Asia Outdoors accepts applications online from a hiring page on their website as well as in-person. Many staff members started out as climbers traveling through Vietnam, finding their passion in the area and wanting to stay and do more! The managers we spoke with told us there are several openings each year, some for unpaid volunteer positions with a commitment of several months, some for longer-term paid full-time positions over a minimum of six months. Full-time employees often work five days a week, volunteers 3 to 4 depending on the season. Both opportunities are great because you get a chance to access all trips that the company offers, use of staff equipment and free training on rope work.
If you’re looking for more ways to do adventure work in Asia while you travel, check out Kite Surfing in Mui Ne, Vietnam: Earn Your Living At 20 Knots!
Thank you so much to the staff of Asia Outdoors for taking us in, teaching us about your jobs, and generally just making us feel included in your adventurous family. We have not been able to stop talking about what a great company you have and how much we can’t wait to come back to try Deep Water Solo!
Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are our own and do not express the opinions of others or our employer. We were NOT paid for this article, but began the training similar to any volunteers and workers at Asia Outdoors. Also, this is an article about our experience working for one employer and will probably vary for others during different times, with different people and with different companies. Use your head.