Cam-Tu Tran looks at the rise of urban rock climbing in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Vinh Dao.

I often go to Saigon Outcast to chill on a Sunday afternoon. The place has a nice atmosphere that makes people feel relaxed straight away. I am surrounded by interesting people, good music, good drinks, cool graffiti, a little skate park under construction, and a towering and superbly colourful rock climbing wall. It belongs to Push Climbing and is one of the three biggest climbing walls in Saigon, joined by walls at Vertical Academy, also in District 2, and X-Rock at Phan Dinh Phung Stadium in District 3. All are becoming increasingly well-known and have been welcomed enthusiastically by the Saigonese population.

“Around 60 percent of my customers are Vietnamese,” says Paul Massad, founder of Push Climbing. “Vietnamese people like to do things together, so basically rock climbing works really well for Vietnamese culture. [They can] encourage one another and have fun together, but the challenge on the wall is completely individual. It is up to every climber to make it to the top. You take the steps, make the effort, and your success doesn’t depend on anybody else. However, you can still be in a community, you can watch the progress of the climbers around you, and learn [from them].”

Whole-Body Workout
The amazing thing about this sport is that you get the health benefits of doing both yoga and weight lifting at the same time. It’s a kind of meditation too, because when you climb the only thing on your mind is how to get to the top. Each time you make a move, you’re pulling your entire body up, so if you weigh 50 kilogrammes and need 20 moves to reach the top, you’re effectively lifting 50 kg 20 times. It’s a whole-body workout, utilising your hands and fingers, arms and legs, all while strengthening your attention, your concentration and patience, and your core.

At Outcast’s wall, you not only learn to how climb, but also how to ‘belay’—the process of securing and safeguarding a rope for a climber—along with learning the names of the various items of equipment, how to put everything on, and how to tie the climbing knots. You can eventually take a test, and, with your hard-earned certificate, whenever you climb with friends, can belay for one another without asking the staff for help. It’s a tiring business however, and bean bags are spread out at the bottom of the wall so climbers can lay down, have a drink, get an electrolyte-packed coconut from the bar and basically chill out until they’re ready for their next climb.

Getting Competitive
“We have many different climbing competitions here,” says Massad, “such as straight climbing, speed climbing, traverse (climbing in a horizontal direction from one side to another), and crate stacking.” The latter is particularly apt for Outcast. Using an auto belay system, climbers stack beer crates on top of another, climbing the crates as they stack them. “The competitions are big fun,” he adds. “For the crate stacking, we’ve had 2 competitions so far, and all the winners were girls.”

After hanging out at the various walls in Saigon, I notice that climbing lovers are people of all ages. Most, especially the kids, climb for fun. Watching these youngsters scaling walls many-times their own height is interesting. They watch the adult climbers, hypnotised, and in their admiration I can see what their future passion might be.

“I’m not really into sports,” says Sam Bonel, a regular climber at both Phan Dinh Phung Stadium and Outcast, “but this is the first time I have found a sport that I can do regularly without getting bored of it. I climb to keep myself fit and also for the good feelings of conquering the big walls. It is a great feeling every time I smash a higher and more difficult level.”

I meet Tuyet Nguyen Thi, a regular at X-Rock climbing in District 3’s Phan Dinh Phung Stadium, who tells me that she has been climbing for four years. “I just climb to have good health,” she says. “When I feel good, I can do 10 climbs in two hours.”

I admire her stamina. I’ve been climbing for a few months now, but can only do a maximum of five climbs per day. “When I began climbing, I was worse than you,” she jokes. “Do not worry. Practice makes perfect. If you train regularly and be patient, you will be better in time.”

The Real Thing
Indoor rock climbing provides good preparation for tackling the real rock faces of nature. Vietnam became popular for real rock climbing thanks to Dosage, a series of documentary films made by Big UP Production. For the third instalment, the team went to Ha Long Bay to shoot ‘deep water solo pioneers’ Tim Emmett and Klem Loskot as they scoured the thousands of limestone towers in search of the perfect climb. The film allowed the world to see Vietnam’s potential as an international climbing destination, as well as witness the other amazing experiences to be had here.

All climbers, especially females, love the process of climbing real rocks. Some women feel like indoor rock climbing is reserved only for tall men, because it can sometimes be hard to reach the individually placed rocks. In the real world, you don’t need to pay attention to the colours of the rocks (signifying their difficulty); you can hold on to anything, put your feet onto anything, as long as you can pull up and get to the top. En route, you can breathe the fresh air, and take in spectacular sights that you would never get to see from the ground.

Once you’ve honed your skills in the city, Vietnam boasts many famous real-world spots, such as Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, Huu Lung, Quoc Oai, Buu Long and Nam Cat Tien. I am positive that you will have one of the best experiences of your life. Enjoy the climb!