The largest island in the Halong region, Cat Ba was our next stop after spending a couple days exploring the impressive bays. Half of the island is protected National Park, providing hiking opportunities and a stunning karst coastline to the south. It was a strategic military outpost during the Vietnam War, with many of it’s wartime relics still intact and interesting to see. The lively Cat Ba Town is the main tourist centre, lined with hotels and resturants along the busy sea front promenade.
We departed from Tuan Chau Ferry Terminal near Halong City, this was the same terminal where our Halong boat cruise finished. We caught the public ferry which has 3 departures per day (depending on the season) to Gia Luan Harbour, situated in the northern tip of Cat Ba. Multiple taxis await as you arrive at the harbour, we ignored the touts and took the public bus to Cat Ba Town (schedules are normally timed with the ferry service). The bus is parked near the entrance gates of the harbour, look out for a beige and green minivan and the following sign to it’s side:
You can reach Cat Ba from Haiphong which is best if you are doing a South to North Vietnam trip. Tourist boats can be arranged at your hotel, or from the many agencies in Hanoi.
THINGS TO DO
One of the best ways to explore the island is to rent a motorcycle, either from your hotel or the many vendors on the main strip in Cat Ba Town. A single road stretches the island between north and south, with some smaller roads that spur off to the sides. Don’t worry the roads are quieter here (unlike Hanoi and Saigon) and there are several scenic viewpoints along the way.
I first checked out Hospital Cave, a hidden concrete bunker built within the deep cavern of a mountain side cave. It was used to treat injured Viet Cong soldiers up until 1975. Being the only visitor there at the time, it was an eerie experience – damp concrete walls separate the dimly lit rooms, some with original furniture and placed with man sized dummies in military uniform to demonstrate how the place use to run. It felt more like a subterranean nuclear shelter than a hospital, but it was an interesting place to visit.
For nature lovers and hikers, the National Park is a great place to explore Cat Ba’s jungle and mountainous heartland. Tall limestone karsts surround the park and along the main north to south road. Multiple hikes with varying difficulty are on offer and different admission fees apply; the trails all start from the National Park’s main gate. I did a 2.5 hour round hike to reach a mountain viewpoint, it was a short and moderate hike ideal if your time is limited.
For the best views head to Cannon Fort, towering over Cat Ba Town with a panorama view of Lan Ha Bay in the horizon. Built in 1945 it was used as a naval and air defence base during several wars, some of the original cannon guns can be seen as well as former helicopter landing spots. There is a bar at the top ran by a nearby hotel resort, where you can buy drinks and snacks. This is also a good spot to watch the sunset.
If the prices for Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long boat cruises put you off, save it for Lan Ha Bay which sits to the south east of Cat Ba Island. Being less crowded and more budget friendly especially the day tours, Lan Ha Bay provides a quieter alternative to Halong Bay with 300 limestone karsts. From our research it sounded just as scenic and beautiful to it’s more popular siblings.
The beaches in Cat Ba are tiny and nothing spectacular, but if you want to go to the beaches there are three beach coves (Co 1-3) and can be easily reached from town by foot or motorcycle. At weekends they can get very crowded especially during the hot season where locals come to cool down. Co 3 was meant to be the most ‘beautiful’ though the most commercialised with a towering concrete hotel being built by its side.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT
We stayed at Bien Phong Hostel on the main strip in Cat Ba Town, it is more of budget hotel rather a hostel and attracts a lot of Vietnamese families as well as backpackers. The rooms are new (some with sea views), air con and private bathroom. At the time there was only one member of staff that spoke good English, and helped us with our booking to get to Ninh Binh in the mainland (featured in our next post).
For a quieter location away from the lively town stay at Cat Ba Mountain View (our second choice hotel). The ferry to town bus calls by here, otherwise you can rent a motorcycle to get around.
- Book your accommodation in advance especially in the peak season and the weekends.
- For boat cruise adventures, check with your hotel or some of the agencies in town. Check the condition of the boats and ensure they have lifejackets enough for all passengers. You can check the reviews on tripadvisor.com before booking anything.
- ATM’s can be found on the main strip in Cat Ba Town.