Outdoor Education

Part 1: Site Selection and the History of Vietnam

By Wilderness Adventures April 21, 2023
Man looking up at a rock wall in Vietnam

Part 1 of the 2022 Ultimate Staff Contest Blog Series

When I was in elementary school, my Gramma used to take me out kayaking on Emerald Lake in southern Vermont. Ducking under bridges, climbing over beaver dams, and exploring the marsh beyond the lake – it was one of my favorite summer activities. Years later as a college student, I was fortunate enough to become a sea kayak trip leader for the University of Vermont Outing Club. I thought it would be a fun way to learn some technical paddling skills (not just splashing around and jumping out of the boat like when I was a child) and be able to take other students out on beautiful Lake Champlain. Little did I know, this program would, at risk of being cliché, change the course of my life. Through this program, I was eventually referred to apply to work for Wilderness Adventures and begin searching for a new career – that’s a whole different story though. More important to this story is that another leader I worked with in the outing club went on a sea kayaking trip to Vietnam. After hearing about their trip and seeing photos of Vietnam, I started planning my own trip.

After 5 years of dreaming about the jaw-dropping karst landscape and cliff-faced islands filling Hạ Long Bay off the coast of northern Vietnam, the Wilderness Adventures Ultimate Staff Contest allowed me the opportunity to travel halfway around the world to experience the incredible wilderness and culture of Vietnam.

Man looking up at a rock wall in Vietnam

The legend of Hạ Long Bay is that when Vietnam was threatened by invaders, a family of dragons was sent by the gods to save the country. The dragons flew over the bay spitting jewels and jade into the ocean that rose into islands. The nearly 2,000 islands scattered throughout the bay provided a barrier against invaders, whose ships crashed into the steep cliffs or got lost in the maze of narrow corridors between the islands. 

If you ask a geologist, you’ll get a different story: when Vietnam was still underwater 500 million years ago, the sea floor had a 1-kilometer-thick layer of limestone. As oceans slowly receded the limestone was heavily eroded, forming the steep, conical hills, and valleys. Now that these structures were no longer underwater, they were exposed to rain, which further extenuated their topography. Carbonic acid – formed when carbon from the atmosphere mixes with rain – continues to dissolve the limestone bedrock, forming sinkholes that expand into valleys studded with rock spires, or karsts. 

Landscape photo of Hạ Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam

And though years ago I had imagined going to Vietnam to sea kayak, after learning about the unique karst landscape of Vietnam that makes for world-class sport climbing and deep-water soloing, I decided that rock climbing would be the focal point of my trip rather than kayaking. After convincing my friend Chris to come with me, I ordered a Vietnam climbing guidebook. It was a snowy December day when it arrived in my mailbox. I was so excited I made a cup of hot chocolate, got comfy on the couch, and didn’t move until I’d read it cover to cover.

By Brandon Gamble, WA Trip Leader