CAT BA ISLAND
Cat Ba Island, which belongs to Vietnam, is considered one of the most beautiful islands of this Asian country. Despite its small area, which is about 350 square kilometers, we can find here many wonderful and beautiful places, such as the Hospital Cave, Monkey Island and Cat Ba National Park. Certainly visiting this place, it is worth reserving at least a few days to visit the local attractions, which will provide us with amazing memories for many years.
Cat Ba Island is the largest of the 367 islands that make up the Cat Ba archipelago and is located in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is located about 50 kilometers (32 miles) from the city of Hai Phong in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba is also by far the largest island in all of Ha Long Bay, which is a 2004 UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cat Ba, is also known as the “Pearl Island.” It is divided into six communes: Hien Hao, Phu Long, Xuan Dam, Tran Chau, Gia Luat and Viet Hai. It is inhabited by 13,000 people, of which 4,000 people live in floating “villages” off the islet’s coast. The Cat Ba area has a karst topography characterized by limestone mountains, stunning caves and white sandy beaches, contributing to the unique beauty of the island and which makes it unique. The island is known for its natural beauty, with high cliffs, lush forests and crystal clear waters. Most of it, along with the archipelago, is within the National Park, which was established in 1986. The reserve’s territorial scope includes subtropical evergreen forests on the hills, swamp forests at the base of the hills, coastal mangroves, small freshwater lakes and coral reefs. Cat Ba Island has three main beaches (Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) where visitors can sunbathe and enjoy swimming in the South China Sea. For those who prefer a physical activity, activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, and snorkeling are available. One of the recommended activities for visitors to the area is hiking up Ngu Lam Peak. Being on the island, you should also try the local seafood.
Due to its growing popularity among visitors, the island has a well-developed tourist infrastructure, with hotels and hostels available to potential tourists in Cat Ba and an efficient ferry terminal. There are also many tourist agencies selling boat cruises and other tours that are organized on the island. Regarding transport, visitors can rent motorcycles to explore the island and see as much as possible during their visit. The city is crowded for most of the year, but outside the city boundaries we can enjoy more peace and open spaces. The roads in the city are quite narrow, and it’s worth remembering, (especially when we will be traveling by car), but in good condition. Outside the city, on the other hand, there are many more potholed roads.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ISLAND
Archaeological evidence suggests that people lived on Cat Ba more than 6,000 years ago, and the earliest settlements were found in the southeastern part of the island, near the area where Ben Beo port is now located. In 1938, a group of French archaeologists discovered human remains belonging to the Cai Beo people, who began to inhabit the island as early as 4,000 to 6,500 years ago (data dependent on source). In “recent history,” Cat Ba Island was inhabited mainly by Vietnamese-Chinese fishermen. Cat Ba was of strategic importance during the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War. During the bombings, local troops hid among the local caves. Since 1997, the town of Cat Ba has grown rapidly and has become the tourist center as well as the island and Ha Long Bay.
Cat Ba Island means “Island of Women” in Vietnamese. One local legend has it that many centuries ago, three women of the Tran dynasty were killed in a battle with fugitives from the sea. Their remains were found on the beach, and local people built three temples on the island to honor them. Later, a local fisherman named the island Cat Ba to thank these heroines.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Cat Ba Island can boast an extremely diverse ecosystem with a wide choice of unique flora and fauna. 1,561 plant species from 186 families have been identified here. In addition, the island is home to 279 animal species, 23 of which are classified as endangered or critically endangered. The fauna consists of 53 species of mammals, 160 birds, 66 amphibians and reptiles, and 274 species of insects. However, the aquatic environment, is home to 900 species of fish, 178 corals, 21 seaweeds, seven sea snakes and four species of sea turtles.
WEATHER ON THE ISLAND
The weather on Cat Ba Island is influenced by the tropical monsoon climate that dominates the region. The average annual temperature is about 23-26 degrees Celsius, and the hottest months are June, July, and August where the temperature reaches 25–33 degrees. This period is the best for water sports, diving, kayaking, or snorkeling. Milder weather and lower temperatures occur from October to November and February to May. In February, March, October and November, average temperatures are between 20-25 degrees Celsius. The coldest months are December and January, with average temperatures ranging from 15 degrees Celsius to 19 degrees Celsius.
August is the rainiest month, with rainfall exceeding 300 mm per square meter and with more than fifteen rainy days per month. There is also a lot of rainfall in June, July, and September where the average rainfall is 250 mm per square meter. March and April are characterized by wet and foggy times of day. Keep in mind that Cat Ba has four seasons, there is here still a rainy season and a dry season. The rainy season lasts from May to September, and the dry season from November to March.
From May to September, visitors can expect cloudless skies and warm, sunny days. If you prefer cooler temperatures, you should come to Cat Ba between December and January, when temperatures average 15 to 19 degrees Celsius. It’s worth keeping this in mind, the fact that there may be occasional typhoons or tropical storms in July and August.
The island can be visited at any time of the year, but the most favorable weather for tourism is usually in summer and autumn, from April to November. This period coincides with the peak tourist season in Ha Long Bay, including Cat Ba Island. As a result, the beaches are crowded with tourists, so it’s worth arriving early to “dibs” on a good spot. Keep in mind, that during this period hotel prices often increase, so it is recommended to make a reservation in advance. Prices start to drop in September, when the number of tourists decreases.
WHAT’S WORTH SEEING
Cat Ba rock climbing
The limestone karsts in Cat Ba National Park are perfect for climbing. The mountains here are part of an ancient coral reef that stretches all the way to Guilin province in China and Krabi in southern Thailand, where you can see the same rock formations. For the active, companies such as Cat Ba Climbing offer half-day and full-day climbing trips.
Watching the coral reefs
The island is well-known for its beautiful, colorful coral reefs. These reefs are under strict protection, which helps stimulate the development of the local ecosystem and thus contributes to the development of tourism. In the town of Cat Ba, you will find many agents that organize tours to the local coral reefs.
Night squid fishing during cruises
Night squid fishing is a unique type of entertainment in Cat Ba. A short fishing trip costs about 500,000 VND (about 25 USD). It is an interesting experience, as we can learn fishing skills from experienced fishermen and spend an unforgettable nighttime at sea.
A visit to Cai Beo fishing village
Cai Beo fishing village is one of the largest ancient fishing villages in Ha Long Bay, dating back to about 6000–7000 years ago. Today, the village is home to about 450 families. Heading south, about 2 kilometers from Cat Ba Island, tourists can find hundreds of houses lined up close together, which resemble a miniature city. The area’s main sources of income are shellfishing and mussel and clam farming, and many tour companies offer night cruises that include squid fishing. Arriving here, tourists can admire the lovely scenery, enjoy fresh seafood and experience local life. It is also worth mentioning that there is much more calm here than in the city of Cat Ba.
Exploring Cat Ba National Park
Cat Ba National Park is located in Cat Hai district, about 30 kilometers south of the city center. The reserve was established in 1986 and covers an area of 263 square kilometers, of which 173 kilometers are land ecosystems (islands) and 90 kilometers are marine ecosystems. The national park is located in the heart of the Cat Ba Archipelago Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and combines the characteristic beauty of the Ha Long Bay Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place is a sanctuary for various wildlife, including 32 species of mammals, most notably the critically endangered golden-headed langur otherwise known as the Cat Ba langur. The Cat Ba Reserve is a tourist attraction that brings millions of visitors from home and abroad. Arriving here, travelers can enjoy the beauty of the vast landscapes and seascapes. Visitors can relax on sequestered beaches in Lan Ha Bay, hike through the original tropical rainforest or mangrove forest, and immerse themselves in local culture. The park offers several hiking trails, such as a two-hour hike to the top of Ngu Lam and a day trip to Viet Hai village. In addition, visitors can take part in rock climbing at terrain in the park and snorkel in the local turquoise waters.
Cat Co beaches
Cat Co beaches with white sand (called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) are a great place to relax. They are located about 1 km southeast of Cat Ba town. All three beaches, are separated from each other by small headlands. There is a small path along the coast that connects the beaches. From the path there are great views of the bay. Each of the beaches is, about a 15-minute walk from each other. It is worth bearing in mind that the beaches are usually crowded during the season. Another famous beach is Tung Thu, which is not far from the city center to the northwest. Of all the beaches, Cat Co 2 is the most beautiful, with soft white sand and blue water. Cat Co 1 and 3 were once as attractive, but now both beaches have been developed for local resorts, and it’s hard to find more peace and quiet here. Littering on these two beaches in the high of the season is unfortunately the norm here. From the city center, tourists can get to either beach by cab, motorcycle, or electric car for a fee of 10,000 VND per person (about $0.5 USD). If you forget to bring a swimsuit with you, you can rent one at the beach. In the experience of many locals here, it is advisable to return from the beach before 7 p.m., as this is the time when the seawater level begins to rise and the waves start to pick up.
Monkey Island (Cat Dua Island)
The island was formerly known as Cat Dua Island. Large quantities of wild pineapple can be found here, but the fruit is not suitable for eating. Local people use them to make traditional medicines for, among other things, diabetes. Monkey Island is also an ideal place for swimming and sunbathe. The island gets its name from being inhabited by weight number of monkeys. The primates snatch food from hands and can bite if provoked. Therefore, be on guard while in their company. To reach Monkey Island, take a 10-minute boat ride from Beo Wharf through the fishing village of Cai Beo. Most cruise ships have stops on the island, also there are always plenty of tourists there.
La Regina Legend cruise
The La Regina itinerary has been carefully devised to provide the best and most unusual experience for travelers wanting something truly unique and unforgettable aboard the ship. These cruises also provide transportation and accommodations. Spending the night aboard a cruise ship adds to its charm with stunning sunsets and starry skies. You can book a cruise here.
It is located on High Point 177 at 177 meters above sea level and offers breathtaking views of Cat Ba Island. Originally built by the Japanese during World War II in 1942, the fort was later used as a defensive position by Vietnamese forces during the Indochina and also the Vietnam Wars (1945-1975). The hike up to the fort provides spectacular views of the thick Cat Ba forest, rolling hills and a picturesque landscape of fishing boats moored at sea. The entrance gate is just a 10-minute walk from the town of Cat Ba, and the fort can be reached in less than 30 minutes. Here you can still see the cannons, trenches, tunnels, and artifacts left by soldiers. Nearby on the left side of the fort is another viewpoint that offers a view of the port in Cat Ba town. There is also a bar nearby. Admission costs 40,000 dong per person (less than $2) and 10,000 dong for motorcycle parking.
Visiting Lan Ha Bay during a canoe trip
Lan Ha Bay is located on the eastern side of Cat Ba Island and borders Ha Long Bay. Geologically, Lan Ha is largely an extension of Ha Long Bay, but geographically the islands are in a different province of Vietnam. It is a peaceful arc-shaped region with about four hundred small islands and islets that form an amazing archipelago. Versus to Ha Long Bay, all the islands in Lan Ha Bay are covered with green trees and vegetation. A unique feature that differs from Ha Long Bay, is that here there are many of narrow channels, between islets with beaches, where the color of the sand is practically white and there are no strong currents, making it an ideal place for kayaking trips. Lan Ha Bay is home to about 200 species of fish, 500 mollusks, about 400 arthropods and numerous hard and soft corals. Larger marine animals found in these waters include seals and dolphins. Canoeing is best organized in the town of Cat Ba. A recommended spot while kayaking in the local bay is around Vai Bon Island, where there are not many tourists, and it is quiet. Here you will also find several sandy and empty beaches.
There are several impressive caves on Cat Ba Island, but the most interesting is an underground, three-level bombproof hospital and shelter that served as a hideout for Vietcong leaders during the Vietnam War. Built between 1963 and 1965, the cave served as a hospital until 1975. Today, you can hire a guide to show you around the 17 rooms, including an operating room and a natural cave that functioned as a movie theater. There was also a swimming pool for soldiers. The cave is located about 10 kilometers from Cat Ba town near the main road. A guide costs about 15,000 VND (less than 1 USD) and admission costs 40,000 dong per person (less than $2 per person). It’s worth taking a guide with you because there is no information in place, for example, in the form of boards on the topic of this cavern.
Trung Trang Cave
This is a small cave 300 meters long, located in the central part of the island. It was discovered by Vietnamese and French archaeologists in 1938.
Ngu Lam Peak
Ngu Lam is an amazing vantage point from which you can enjoy the wildlife of Cat Ba Island and see hundreds of other peaks located on the island. To get there, you have to, drive up to the entrance to Cat Ba National Park. It is marked by a large arch on the main road. After parking at a nearby parking lot, the trail leads along the road. Then you need to walk towards the restaurant. The path winds through the jungle and is quite rolling. There are no very steep climbs on the trail, and the path is well-maintained. Along the way, you will come across an observation tower. Admission to the park costs 40,000 dong per person (less than $2). It takes about 1 hour to get to the top and about 45 minutes to descend. In total, you have to walk shy of than 4 kilometers, and the summit rises 225 meters above sea level. Remember to get water, decent shoes and possibly some snacks out.
HOW TO GET THERE
One option is, to get to Cat Ba Island, is to take a bus from Hanoi, which will take us to the islet in 4–5 hours (the time depends on the traffic on the road and the time it is necessary to cruise the ferry). The bus arrives at Got Ferry Terminal, from where the ferry transports us to the island. The ferry sails outs every hour between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. During peak season, it shuttles every 30 minutes. Fares are about $13 per adult. Buses leave several times during the day, usually at 7.30, 10.30-11:00 i 14.00-14.15.
A recommended company to buy bus tickets is Catbaexpress.com. The address from where the buses depart: 106 Đ. Trần Nhật Duật, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam, or Good Morning Cat Ba, 9B P. Chợ Gạo, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam.
There are three ferries a day from Ha Long Bay to the island, specifically from Tuan Chau. The ferry trip takes about an hour, and the cost is about 200,000 VND (about 20 USD) if we want to take our or a rented motorcycle with us on the island. From there it’s about a 40-minute drive, to the town of Cat Ba. There is a bus that shuttles there, which costs about 30,000 VND per person (about 3 USD). You can also take a cab, but keep in mind that such services are expensive in Cat Ba.
Another option is to travel from Hai Phong where you should get to Ben Binh pier. This is the main point from where boats and ferries shuttle to Cat Ba Island. The cruise takes about 1 hour. You can get to the pier by cab or local bus.
Another way is to take a private car/van from Hanoi to Cat Ba, which we can rent at the local airport. The price for a private car for one day is about $20.
It is also possible to get from Hanoi city to Hai Phong city by train. The trip takes about 2.5 hours, and ticket prices range from $3 to $4.
Cat Ba cable car
An interesting alternative is, getting to the island by cable car, which is one of the longest cable cars in the world. Its length is 4 kilometers. The project is owned by Sun Group, and it opened on June 6, 2020. It consists of 60 carriages, and one carriage accommodates a maximum of 30 passengers.
Opening hours (daily except Tuesdays):
Morning: 9 am – 11:30 am.
Afternoon: 1:30 pm – 4 pm (weekdays) or 1:30 pm – 6 pm (Saturday, Sunday).
Ticket price: 150,000 VND / adult.
Children: 100,000 VND / from 1 to 1.4 meters high; Free for children under 1 meter.
The undermentioned list includes recommended accommodations on Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Mountain View – a 2-star hotel located on the border of Cat Ba town and the reserve. The resort on its terrain has a swimming pool with a beautiful view of the entire bay. Private rooms are equipped with air conditioning.
Cat Ba Lucky Family Hotel – a 1-star friendly hotel. Rooms are spacious with air conditioning and private bathrooms.
Victor Charlie Hostel 2 – a cheap hostel with small rooms, with laundry and scooter rental in place. It’s worth taking a room on the top floor for a view of the bay and the city.
Secret Garden Hostel – a small hippie-style hostel. The apartment is slightly away from the center, so the area is more peaceful. In the evenings, the local pub plays regional music. A good choice for vegetarians and vegans.
Sea Pearl – a 3-star hotel located near the port in Cat Ba.
Cat Ba Eco-Lodge – 3-star hotel located on a reserve, about 13 km from Cat Ba port.
Flamingo Lan Ha Bay Resort – a hotel located near the center of Cat Ba with sea views and a swimming pool. It is located on Cat Co 2 beach.
Hôtel Perle D’Orient – 5-star luxury hotel located near Cat Co 3 beach.
Cat Ba Island Resort & Spa – 4-star hotel connective local architectural style with French
USEFUL LINKS AND INFORMATION
For more information about the weather in Cat Ba, is here.
If you plan to travel to Vietnam and visit places where you are likely to encounter wild animals, it is a good idea to get vaccinated against rabies.
The cost of renting a motorcycle for a full day in Cat Ba is about $5.
If we do not want to organize a tour of Ha Long Bay on our own, we can use the services of Vietnam Travel.
ATTENTION! All prices quoted in this article are with October 2023.
Cat Ba is certainly a special and unique place. While in Vietnam, it is definitely worth staying here, even if only for a few days. Thanks to its biodiversity and diverse landscapes, which include mangrove forests, islets, white sandy beaches and coral reefs, we are guaranteed that what we see here will not be encountered anywhere else. Because more than half of the island is protected as a national park, this will give us the opportunity to constant contact with nature. In addition, don’t forget about the activities which we can do here, such as, among others, kayaking, scuba diving and rock climbing.
Author BORIS G, source flickr.
Author Domino, Ha Long Bay, source Unsplasch.
Author BORIS G, source flickr.
Author Ashim D’Silva, Ha Long Bay, source Unsplash.
Author Ammie Ngo, Ha Long Bay, source Unsplash.
Author Rowan Heuvel, source Unsplash.
Author Nathan Cima, source Unsplash.
Author Marco Verch Professional Photographer, source flickr.
Author Binh Ho Image, source pxhere.