Cat Ba Island
The largest of the islands sitting in the Halong Harbour, Cat Ba Island is home to a massive national park, stunning beaches, and the last home to the most endangered primates in the world. The second you step foot on the island you easily understand why it has quickly grown to be one of the most popular spots to visit on your tour through Vietnam. Whether you like rock climbing, hiking, watersports, relaxing on a beach, or eating top-notch seafood, there is something for everyone. Add in the low costs for everything and you have the ideal budget destination. The island is also a perfect jump-off point for cruises through Lan Ha Bay and is an easy connection for the main port for Halong Bay Cruises.
What to do
Cat Ba is the perfect home base for a few days of adventure and a few days of relaxation. Take advantage of the top-notch beaches- many of which can only be accessed from the water, or hop on a motorbike and cruise through the hills to explore the national park. It doesn't matter what your interests are as there is something for pretty much everyone!
Cat Ba National Park
Over half of the entire island is covered in a national park. Though it is 80,000VND to enter, it is worth every penny as the area is stunning. There are several main trails that you can explore but the most common is a few KM hike up to one of the tallest peaks in the park. Though it is quite steep at points, it can be easily done on your own with no need to hire a guide. The other main hike is very long and tiring but takes you through the park to a small fishing village that can only be accessed by boat or this trail. With many unexploded bombs and mines in the park, it is advised to have a guide with you for this trek as it is complicated and dangerous if you get lost.
The national park is also home to the last few Cat Ba langurs in the world. These colourful and cute animals are the most endangered primates in the world with only about 60 left. It is definitely worth it to spend a few hours and explore the area!
Trung Trang Cave
Just down the road from the National Park office is Trung Trang Cave, an easy to explore cave, that snakes its way through a mountain. Climbing the hundred or so steps to the entrance gives you a great view of the area before you plunge into the narrow sections of the cave. At over 300M long, the cave narrows to the point of crawling before opening up into large caverns numerous times. Make sure to go through the entire cave as the ending opening is massive! Entrance is free as long as you purchase the national park pass and visit them both on the same day.
During the Vietnam-American War, Cat Ba Island was the sight of extensive bombings by the Americans. To stay safe, residence and the military took a massive cave with a hidden entrance and built an entire hospital inside. Entering through massive steal bomb-proof doors, you find yourself in a long hallway which used to be the operating rooms, sleeping quarters for the staff,
and munitions rooms. Walking up a flight of stairs, you pass the swimming pool to the soldiers' training room and living space. This massive concrete pad was where hundreds of soldiers lived and trained for 10 years! Hidden up a narrow staircase is even a third level that contains the captain's quarters. During the many bombing raids, many of the locals also moved into this space. At its max, it was able to hold 2,000 citizens, several hundred soldiers, and about 50 medical staff. Even after over a decade of bombings, it was not able to be destroyed and is another example of the ingenuity and strength of the Vietnamese people.
During the summer, the beaches of Cat Ba are some of the top in Vietnam. Backed by gorgeous mountains that come straight up from the water, it's hard to beat these beautiful coves. While there are dozens that dot the edge of the island, the most popular ones are just a few minutes' walk from Cat Ba Town. Unfortunately, development has started and will impact the beauty of Beaches 1 and 2. On the other side of town, is another amazing cove beach with one of the deepest stretches of the beach we have ever seen!
As much of the island is a national park, there are only a few roads reaching Cat Ba Town. One of these roads takes you along the coast of the island and is stunning. No doubt everyone should jump on a bike and cruise down the coastal route. If anyone has ever done the Great Ocean Road or Highway 1/Big Sur, this route will be quite similar. Just a simple drive down the highway will take your breath away and is the perfect way to relax.
A quick stop at Butterfly Valley will reward you with stunning views and thousands of new butterfly friends!
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Cat Ba Island is a great spot to relax and step away from the craziness of Hanoi. While the streets can get packed during the height of the busy season, the shoulder seasons still have amazing beach weather and not nearly as many people. With only one main city, it is super easy to explore the island while keeping a safe distance from others and being conscious of Covid-19. There is top notch rock climbing, hiking, sea kayaking, and some of Vietnam's best beaches! Even on a relatively busy hike through the National Park, there is plenty of space on the path to stay safe!
Where to Stay
Cat Ba Town is pretty small but has a ton of places to stay. If you go in the shoulder season you will have your choice of places at heavily discounted prices. There are literally dozens of highrise hotels blanketing the 2 main streets of town many with attached restaurants so it's not hard to find a cheap place to spend the night. Our biggest suggestion is to avoid the cheapest places as they are that price for a reason! We wandered into at least a half dozen places between $4-6USD/night and found the majority left much to be desired. At just a buck or two more, the quality and cleanliness went way up! We stayed at Cat Ba Bay Vision Hotel and highly recommend it. The rooms are massive, have great ocean views, great breakfast with proper Vietnamese coffee, and very friendly staff. They also have great motorcycles to rent at really good prices. Everything that you wish is within a few blocks of each other so any hotel in central Cat Ba will be positioned well.
If you are looking for something a bit more unique and are willing to stay outside of town, check out Hoi Lake Farmstay. Located inside the national park and past the admission gates, it is hard to beat waking up to gorgeous mountain views, or even a sunrise walk to one of their peaks! It may not be the cheapest place in town but is well worth the extra for such a unique experience.
How to get there and around
There are several main ways that you can get to Cat Ba Island. The most popular route is a bus/ferry/bus trip from Hanoi. Though that sounds a bit intense, all segments are set up by the same company and make it a really easy way to get to the island. There is no bridge stretching the gap between mainland Vietnam and Cat Ba Island so the only way is on a ferry at some point. To or from Hanoi takes about 3.5 hours with an hour by bus on Cat Ba, 10 minutes on the ferry, and 2.5 hours on the mainland. There should be a 15 minute stop at a rest stop halfway on the mainland journey but just make sure with the company when you book. A one-way journey costs about 270,000 VND/person but is convenient and comfortable.
The second option is to take a fast ferry (hydrofoil) from Cat Ba Town to Hai Phong, then a taxi/bus to the train station, and finally a 2-hour train from Hai Phong to Hanoi. This route will likely cost more and take longer than the bus/ferry route but is there for those who prefer it.
The final route is a great option if you plan on exploring Ha Long Bay (which is highly suggested). Almost every tour to the bay will include transportation to one of the ferry ports that are jump-off points for the cruises. The most popular port is Tuan Chau Harbour. When booking your cruise, choose to only have transportation one way (that will likely drop the price about $5USD/person) and make your way to the small public ferry port (Tuan Chun Ferry) on the island. All the guides/drivers will know where it is and they can likely drop you off at it as it's on the way back to Hanoi from the boats. Here, there is a ferry that takes you across to Cat Ba Island (Gia Luan Harbour). If everything is running as scheduled, there are two ferry types. The speedboats take about 20 minutes and costs 150,000VND while the slow ferry takes over 2 hours but costs only 60,000VND. From here, there is a bus that comes every 30 or so minutes and takes you to Cat Ba Town in less than an hour. You can also hop into one of the taxis that are likely there but just make sure you bargain REALLY hard. We got ours down to 400,000 VND but you should be able to get it even lower. We found this route to be really nice and way more convenient if you are already thinking of visiting Halong Bay. You can find more information about this ferry HERE.
Once you are on Cat Ba Island, rent a motorcycle and make your way around. There isnt really any public transport system except for a bus that takes you across to Gai Luan Harbour. Motorcycles are cheap and can easily be found on the street or any hotel for 100,000 VND. Our suggestion is to avoid the very cheapest ones and go for one that has a decent engine as the hills are crazy and you don't want to be underpowered.
As it is an island, there aren't any "day trips" that you can do to other places, but there are lots of day activities. Whether you prefer water or land, there are tours that you can purchase that will take you to unique areas of the island.
Lan Ha Bay
If you have done extensive research on what Halong Bay cruise you want to do, you will likely have stumbled upon Lan Ha Bay. Located on the far east side of the island, this Bay has started to get popular as an overnight alternative to the crazy busy Halong Bay. With hundreds of karst islands dotting the area, it is almost as beautiful but much quieter. There are many day trips leaving from Cat Ba Town that will take you through the bay stopping at a few of the popular caves and sometimes Monkey Island - a small island with bungalows to stay in that is populated by dozens of monkeys.
There are dozens of companies that offer anything from hiking to kayaking, and even top-notch rock climbing depending on your preference. Poke your head into one of the many travel agencies attached to hotels and see what they have to offer. Rock climbing is one of the top things to do in the area as there are not only fantastic cliffs on land but also great spots to Deepwater Solo. Even if you have no experience climbing, there will be routes for you in gorgeous settings. Butterfly Valley is one of these areas. With thousands of butterflies calling the area home and a spectacular windy road to get in, climbing isn't the only thing that will keep you entertained! There is only one company that can run rock climbing tours so if you can work directly with Cat Ba Climbing then that is ideal.