First published August 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Cat Ba Island, lying in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the northeast coast of Vietnam, is a favourite travel destination for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Roughly equidistant from two of northern Vietnam’s largest industrial cities – Hai Phong (to the west) and Ha Long (to the north) – Cat Ba Island is, nonetheless, one of the country’s star natural attractions, and part of the world-famous Halong Bay. A large, green and rugged island (most of which belongs to a national park), Cat Ba’s interior is a forest of limestone karsts, whose pointed peaks are overlaid with thick jungle, echoing to the sounds of insects and animals; while its dramatic coastline is indented with myriad bays, coves, and cliffs. Cat Ba is a beautiful island and there’s lots to see and do here, but it’s also one of Vietnam’s major tourist hot spots. Cat Ba’s population is around 16,000, but each year the island receives some 2.5 million tourists. With this popularity comes some familiar problems: crowds during peak times, over-development in concentrated areas, pollution, noise, threats to the natural environment. However, Cat Ba is still a great place to explore as an independent traveller, and you can avoid the crowds and tourist paraphernalia if you choose. Below is my full travel guide to Cat Ba Island.
GUIDE: CAT BA ISLAND
Below is my full guide to Cat Ba Island, including a detailed map. I’ve divided this guide into several categories, and then sub-sections within each category to make it easier to navigate. The best time of year to visit Cat Ba Island is generally from April to October, when there’s plenty of sunshine and warmth (but also plenty of rain and humidity). Between November and March it can be misty and sometimes surprisingly cold. It’s also advisable to visit on a weekday, and avoid weekends and public holidays, during which the island can get very crowded with tourists, and prices are inflated. Plan to spend between 2-5 days on Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Island, Hai Phong Province
View in a LARGER MAP
Location & Background:
Below I’ve written a description of the location and topography of Cat Ba Island and a little bit of history and background, followed by some information about the current state of the natural environment:
The name ‘Cat Ba’ apparently comes from – as with so many place names in Vietnam – a local legend. During the Tran Dynasty, three women were killed and their bodies washed up one by one on the beaches of the island. Each body was discovered on a different beach (beaches Cat Co 1, 2, 3 today). ‘Cat Ba’ probably means something along the lines of ‘All the Women’. Legend aside, humans have being living on the island for at least 6,000 years; the earliest archaeological evidence being in the southeast, not far from where the main settlement is today. Cat Ba had a sizable Chinese population, but most fled in 1979 during the brief but violent and bitter Sino-Viet War. In the other wars of the 20th century, Cat Ba was strategically important as a look-out point, protecting the north’s main port of Hai Phong. As an island of limestone karsts, Cat Ba’s many caves have long provided shelter and concealment. Hospital Cave, among others, is one such place that visitors can still see today.
*Please note: Historical information in this article is based on my reading of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian.
An amorphous island (owing to the thousands of tiny islets and rocky outcrops scattered close to its shores), Cat Ba is situated just east of the port of Hai Phong, and, indeed, is part of the municipality of the same name. Geographically, though, Cat Ba is essentially the southernmost extent of the string of limestone islands stretching all the way from the Chinese border near Mong Cai down through Halong Bay. Although Cat Ba is one of the largest islands in Vietnam, because the terrain is so rugged, its population is only around 16,000. However, each year some 2.5 million foreign and domestic tourists descend on the island. This means, of course, that tourism is a big deal on Cat Ba. However, much of the island and surrounding waters are part of the national park and UNESCO Biosphere. This has largely saved Cat Ba (so far) from over-development for tourism and industry. With the exception of Cat Ba town and the surrounding beaches at the southern tip of the island, most of Cat Ba is fairly pristine.
There’s a huge difference in character between the south of the island and the north. As a general rule, the south is developed, touristy, and often busy, while the north is quiet, beautiful, undeveloped and, from my point of view, far more pleasant. Because it’s such a rugged, mountainous island, not much can be grown on Cat Ba. But, on some of the gentler hillsides and the few flat patches of land, fruit trees are planted, providing fresh produce for the markets and vendors. Lychee, banana, papaya, pineapple, passion fruit and mango can all be seen growing around the island and for sale in its markets.
Environment & Pollution:
As mentioned above, much of Cat Ba Island is part of the national park and UNESCO Biosphere. Although this does seem to have curbed reckless development and industry, there are some very worrying statistics concerning the natural environment. Endemic to the island, the Golden-headed Langur (or Cat Ba Langur) is one of the rarest primates in the world. Once numbering in the thousands, it’s now estimated that the langur population on Cat Ba is lower than 50. Because the langur is a cute and cuddly animal, efforts to raise awareness of the dwindling numbers and garner support for conservation have been fairly successful. But it could well turn out to be all in vain. Think of the last of the rare Javan Rhinos in Cat Tien National Park, poached to death in 2011, despite efforts to prevent it. There are some enormous resort and residential projects underway on the island, many of which call themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, but, at the construction sites, they look to be anything but. Cat Ba is in a precarious position, in the middle of an industrial triangle: Hai Phong, to the west, is an enormous industrial port, and Cat Hai Island, directly adjacent to Cat Ba, is on the cusp of becoming a major industrial zone thanks to VinFast (Vietnam’s first car manufacturer) opening their factory there; and to the north are the coal mines of Quang Ninh Province.
Generally, litter on land and in the sea appears – to the naked eye, at least – to be relatively under control, especially when compared to other such islands in Vietnam that have seen tourism booms in recent years. There’s still a crust of trash in the harbours, on the beaches, and at some of the more popular tourist sites, but it’s nothing like as bad as I had feared it would be. Large green trash cans are positioned in the main town and hamlets on the island, and there are government signs everywhere urging locals and visitors alike to dispose of trash responsibly and the treat the island well. Cat Ba town, the main hub for hotels, bars, and restaurants, is a sprawl of high-rise concrete, overcrowded streets, and traffic jams of tourist coaches. If Cat Ba town is a model of development for the rest of the island, it’ll be a disaster.
Things to See & Do:
Cat Ba Island is all about the natural scenery, and there are several ways to see, enjoy and experience it. Motorbiking, hiking, climbing, kayaking and boat tours are all very rewarding ways to get closer to the wonderful landscapes and seascapes of Cat Ba. Click an item below to read more about it:
- Beaches & Bays
- Motorbiking & Biking
- Hiking, Climbing & View Points
- Caves & Caverns
- Towns, Villages & Hamlets
- Boat Tours
Despite being an island, Cat Ba doesn’t have many sandy beaches. To make matters worse, what few beaches there are, are currently being gobbled up by massive construction projects (even though it appears that coastal erosion will soon render the beaches lost anyway). The problem with many of the beaches on Cat Ba Island, especially the ones on the west coast, is that the water is often brown. This is because Cat Ba is directly opposite the mouth of several large rivers. The alluvial runoff turns the water viscous and tea-coloured: fairly uninviting for swimming. In general, the beaches on the island are better to look at than the bathe in. The best beaches for swimming are on the small outlying islands, particularly to the east of Cat Ba, which can be reached by boat from Ben Beo Port. The following beaches are listed in geographical order, from the south of the island to the north:
Cat Co Beaches (1, 2, 3) [MAP]: At the time of writing (August 2019), these three beaches, all just south of Ca Ba Town, separated from each other by limestone bluffs, were in a depressing state of transformation. Traditionally the go-to beaches on the island for visitors, particularly weekending domestic tourists, each one of the coves is now being developed by huge, high-end resorts. At the time of research, access to all three bays was quite restricted: either entered on foot via the building sites, or off limits altogether. The most tragic of all was Cat Co 1, the middle of the three beaches (somewhat illogically). Here, the construction of a multi-storey resort was so close to the water that the building site had to be protected from flooding by a wall of sandbags. Such is the erosion of the beach that the entire project looks in danger of being washed away before it’s even finished. Still, in what I perceived as a rather tragic sight, hundreds of tourists sunbathed, swam, and took boat rides just a couple of feet away from the ongoing construction – squeezing into the last inches of available sand. It was a sad scene (even though, it must be said, everyone appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves), and not one which I wanted to partake in. Soon, I suppose, the resorts will open. But how they are going to prevent the beach erosion, I don’t know. All three of the Cat Co beaches are very scenically positioned, but they are now all stamped with large, fairly expensive resorts. Cat Co 3 is the best of the beaches: a wide wedge of sand bookended by limestone crags. But one big resort is already on it and another is under construction. Plus, because it’s so easily accessible from town, it’s often very crowded indeed.
Storland Beach [MAP]: One bay north of Cat Co 2 is the so-called Storland Beach. Reached via a steep and muddy trail through dense foliage, this is the only undeveloped beach in the south of Cat Ba Island. Although usually completely empty and very picturesque, the water quality is pretty murky and, because it hasn’t been developed, there’s a fair amount of trash around – left on the beach by previous visitors or washed up on the tide. It’s worth coming here for the peace and quiet, and the trek through the jungle, which also affords some good views on side paths. But the swimming isn’t great.
Tung Thu Beach [MAP]: A new road, blasted through the limestone immediately north of Cat Ba Town’s harboufront, creates easy access to Tung Thu Beach. A wide portion of yellow sand between limestone cliffs, Tung Thu Beach is very scenic. But it’s also very exposed and suffers from muddy waters. However, it’s still a pleasant place to be and there’s a backpacker community growing here. There’s accommodation, including dorms and camping (see Accommodation for details), and water activities, such as kayaking and a giant inflatable obstacle course out in the bay.
Woodstock Beach [MAP]: I’ve named this beach because of its proximity to the wildly popular Woodstock Beach Camp (see Accommodation for details). The camp’s bar and beach activities take place on the sand nearest to the road, but the beach stretches far beyond this if you’re looking for some solitude. It’s a wide, long, curving bay with excellent views out to sea and limestone karsts dotting the horizon. The water quality is just about good enough for bathing, but, like so many of Cat Ba’s west coast beaches, it’s more for looking at. Backpackers enjoy hanging out here: lazing in the hammocks, propping up Mr Wilson’s Beach Bar (‘Wilson’ as in Tom Hank’s volleyball companion in the movie ‘Castaway’), playing football, cards, smoking and generally having a fine old time.
Double Crescent Beach [MAP]: This amazing location looks like something out of the movie ‘The Beach’. At least, it would, if there weren’t a half-built, possibly abandoned, resort on it. Easily accessed via a side-route from the coastal road, limestone outcrops form a ring around two sandy coves, where the Bayview Resort has started to build its bungalows. The bays are still used by locals to moor little, woven fishing skiffs, and, in the late afternoons, local children come to bathe. The sun sets over the ocean, perfectly framed by the limestone bluffs. Water quality is OK – a bit brown and murky – and the sand is a little messy. But the location is superb. When I visited, it looked as though construction of the resort had stalled (I even considered camping on the resort-to-be’s grounds). But perhaps it was just a lull in the project. Either way, it’s definitely worth stopping by in the late afternoon to check it out.
Buddha Beach [MAP]: This is an attractive looking beach on the coast road a few kilometres south of Cai Vieng Port. Wedged between a bend in the road, this sandy cove is lined with tall casuarina trees. It’s pretty, quiet, and undeveloped, but the water is usually quite muddy. There’s a little Buddhist shrine on the opposite side of the road, hence the name.
Motorbiking & Biking:
The road network on Cat Ba has greatly improved in recent years, and riding a motorbike for a day or two is a fantastic way to explore the island. Motorbikes are available to rent from most hotels and travel agencies (75,000-150,000vnd per day). But the general quality of the bikes is rather bad: ancient, poorly maintained Yamaha Nouvos. However, as the distances are short, they’re adequate to get you around the island. But ride cautiously: there are many blind corners, steep ascents, gravel on the road (treacherous), and dangerously lackadaisical island riding.
There are two ‘main’ roads on the island: Duong Xuyen Dao Cat Ba runs inland from south to north, connecting Cat Ba Town and Gia Luan Port (22km); Duong DT356 runs along the entire west coast, linking Cat Ba Town and Cai Vieng Port (24km). Both roads are extraordinarily scenic to ride, and neither of them take more than an hour to complete. But, because there are lots of opportunities for photographs and places to stop, see, and do along the way, riding these two roads can take a whole day, if not more. There are also several smaller – but no less beautiful – roads linking the inland route with the coastal route. In particular, the paved back road between the National Park HQ and Buddha Beach is especially nice, and so is the dead-end paved lane leading up to Butterfly Valley (Lien Minh). *For information about bike rental and road safety, see Getting Around Cat Ba Island.
Bicycles are also available to rent on Cat Ba, and are a pleasant way to see the island. But bear in mind that the roads (including dirt-tracks) can be quite challenging, especially in the punishing heat and humidity that Cat Ba is famous for.
Hiking, Climbing & View Points:
Because most of Cat Ba Island is a national park, there are quite a lot of opportunities for hiking. Also, as the terrain is so rugged and punctuated by limestone cliffs, outcrops and karsts, climbing is a popular activity on Cat Ba. Even if you’re not a serious climber, there are several wonderful viewing points on Cat Ba, accessed via lanes and steps, offering sweeping vistas over the island’s exotic and mysterious topography. Click an item below for more details:
- National Park Trails
- Hidden Valley
- Butterfly Valley
- Cat Ba War Memorial View Point
- Cannon Fort Peak
- Bayside Temple
National Park Trails [MAP]: There are two main treks (one long, one short) from the National Park HQ, both of which can be done independently. But be aware that the terrain is quite tough, and, in wet conditions, can be treacherous. Bring water, bug spray, decent footwear (flip-flops aren’t a good idea), and a cell phone. For the ‘google maps generation’, many of whom have lost their sense of direction, don’t forget to take note of your surroundings: it’s surprisingly easy to lose your bearings in the forest of limestone karsts, and you probably won’t get a phone signal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time (or suitable weather conditions) to complete the longer trek (15km; 6 hours) from National Park HQ across the island to Viet Hai hamlet and on to its port for the return boat (around 300,000vnd) back to Ben Beo Port, near Cat Ba Town. But, in good weather, I’m certain it would be a great, if fairly challenging, day’s hike. Instead, I walked the shorter trail (2km return) from National Park HQ up to Dinh Ngu Lam view point, where a concrete gazebo sits just below the peak (another 10-minute climb), with incredible panoramic views of the limestone outcrops all around the island. Including stops for photos, talking to other walkers, and rests, the round trip from HQ to the peak and back takes between 90 minutes and two hours. This largely depends on your fitness and weather conditions. Some sections are very steep, and the humidity can be extremely punishing. Nonetheless, for most people in good health it’s very doable. But be careful on the rocks: they’re jagged, sharp, and can become very slippery when wet. Refreshments are available at the trailhead and the National Park HQ. The park entrance fee is 80,000vnd, paid at the kiosk at HQ. There’s also accommodation here in the form of Ho Lake Homestay (see Accommodation for details).
Hidden Valley [MAP]: Accessed through the back-streets of Cat Ba Town (which in itself is quite interesting), the Hidden Valley is located at the end of a series of progressively small, steep and slippery paths through the jungle. After 5-10 minutes of walking, the foliage clears to reveal a craterous valley, hemmed in by jagged limestone cliffs, edged with exotic flora. There’s rock climbing here up the limestone crags (get your permit and ask for more information at either Cat Ba Climbing (Mr Zoom Hostel), Langur’s Adventures, or Cat Ba Ventures). But, unless you’re a climber, the Hidden Valley is just a nice (and humid) walk.
Butterfly Valley [MAP]: Northwest of Cat Ba Town, a steep, paved lane leads deep into the interior of the island. Rising through fruit orchards, eucalyptus plantations and pine trees the lane climbs through a couple of tiny hamlets all the way to Lien Minh. A small settlement at the end of the road, Lien Minh has some old farm houses dotted about gardens of tropical fruit. The peaceful hamlet is on the edge of a wide, grassy valley, bounded on two sides by sheer limestone cliffs. Known as Butterfly Valley, this is a good climbing spot (get your permit and more information at either Cat Ba Climbing (Mr Zoom Hostel), Langur’s Adventures, or Cat Ba Ventures). Even if you don’t climb, it’s a very pretty place to wander for an hour. Bring a picnic, or get food at the parking shack. There’s also a good homestay (see Accommodation for details).
Cat Ba War Memorial [MAP]: Accessed via a steep set of stairs at the end of a narrow lane behind Cat Ba Town, this war memorial is best-known for its panoramic views: looking down over the high-rise town, across the harbour – dotted with fishing boats – and out to the limestone islands in the bay. It’s fairly hard to find the access road: if you can’t locate it from my map, try asking the staff at your accommodation in Cat Ba Town.
Cannon Fort [MAP]: Located up a very steep road behind Cat Ba Town, Cannon Fort is a French colonial-era gun placement which is known today for its stupendous views over Cat Ba Town and the maze of limestone islets surrounding it. Unfortunately, due to ongoing construction of three giant resort towers on the Cat Co beaches, Cannon Fort was closed when I visited in August 2019, and shows no sign of opening soon (nor did anyone I asked, including the construction staff, have any idea when it would reopen). However, I’m told that it will eventually reopen, and when it does I’m sure the views will be every bit as good as they were before.
Bayside Temple [MAP]: In the far north of the island, the Bayside Temple is a diminutive Buddhist shrine nestled beneath a limestone cliff as it meets the placid waters of a beautiful inlet. Most of the fun is in getting there: the shrine is accessed via a long wooden and concrete walkway, raised above the water, hugging the rock face. It’s particularly lovely in the mornings and late afternoons.
Caves & Caverns:
The limestone karst landscape of Cat Ba Island is riddled with cave systems, where, over millions of years of erosion, rain and sea water have carved out hollow chambers in the hills and cliffs. Some of these caverns have a human history as well as a natural history:
Hospital Cave [MAP]: A few kilometres north of Cat Ba Town on the inland road, Hospital Cave is a fascinating, sobering, and slightly haunting reminder of Vietnam’s great military struggles of the 20th century. That time, thank goodness, is now passed, and I, like much of the rest of the nation, think less and less about the wars which came to define Vietnam for a generation of Westerners (and, of course, Vietnamese). Accessed via a steep set of stairs, Hospital Cave is essentially a concrete military bunker built into a natural cave system. The cave was used during the 1960s and 70s as a hospital and hideout for the North Vietnamese. The jungle-covered limestone karst, into which the cave leads, is a beautiful piece of nature. But, inside, it’s a mixture of man-made antechambers – from communications and meeting rooms, to weapons piles and medical wards – and natural caverns, dripping with stalactites. Some of the rooms feature painted mannequins of soldiers and nurses: glimpsed from the corner of your eye, there’s a brief shock and a disturbing line back to how it might have felt to be in this cave during the war years. I found the juxtaposition of natural wonder and human terror quite rattling. The cave has, presumably, sheltered many people over many millennia. Thousands of years ago, I suppose, the Cai Beo people, who used to inhabit Cat Ba Island, might have sheltered here at night, listening, scared stiff, to the prowling animals outside, feeling the damp chill of the cave in their bones. Just as, some 50 years ago, Vietnamese army personnel and nurses would have stiffened at the sound of crunching leaves – possibly footsteps from outside – and the sound of bombs falling and artillery firing. The chambers, too, must have echoed horribly with the pain of the wounded, carried in on stretchers and operated on inside the cave. The air quality is extraordinarily cool and damp, compared to the heat outside. I enjoyed a deep gulp of fresh air (and freedom) when I exited. (Entrance: 40,000vnd)
Trung Trang Cave [MAP]: Just a few minutes further up the road from Hospital Cave, Trung Trang Cave features a labyrinthine walkway through a warren of tight caverns and an obstacle course of stalactites. Accessed through a forest, screaming with midday cicadas, the cave entrance is up a steep flight of stairs. The walk through the cave is a loop, exiting a couple hundred metres back down the road at Trung Trang Resort (see Accommodation for details), where there are refreshments available. The walk only takes 10-15 minutes, but some of the caverns are a tight squeeze. It’s definitely worth stopping for. (Entrance: 80,000vnd)
Hoa Cuong Cave [MAP]: Near the northern tip of the inland road, just after passing through Gia Luan hamlet, this cavern was locked when I visited; nor was there anyone at the ticket kiosk to open it for me. However, it’s worth taking a look if you’re in the area anyway.
Towns, Villages & Hamlets:
There’s only really one significant settlement on the island: Cat Ba Town. Other communities are little more than hamlets scattered about the island, often near bays:
Cat Ba Town [MAP]: Although the setting could hardly be any better – in a perfect natural harbour, surrounded by steep limestone crags – Cat Ba Town is, to be blunt, a touristy dump. On weekends, especially, Cat Ba Town is a busy, gaudy, unappealing mass of hotels, restaurants, bars, brothels, and karaoke clubs. There is relief in the main market, where local life, food, and produce breath life into the otherwise tourist-oriented town. The waterfront road, promenade and park is a beautiful setting, but overshadowed – quite literally – by dozens upon dozens of multi-storey hotels. Throughout the day, Cat Ba Town echoes to sound of hammers and drills. But, of course, you will find everything you ‘need’ here: decent coffee, a variety of restaurants (think pizzas, burgers, bad value Vietnamese food, and impatient, grumpy service), cocktails, beer, happy hours, tons of accommodation options, and tour agents. It’s not a nice town, but most travellers will end up using it as their base – for sleeping, organizing tours, motorbike rental, onward transportation, and for Western ‘comforts’. However, don’t waste too much time lingering in Cat Ba Town: spend the majority of it out of town, around the island, in the green jungles and along the jagged coastline. That, after all, is why you’re here in the first place. One thing Cat Ba Town does offer is great views from its hotel balconies (at least, at some hotels). Note: sadly, during my visit, there were signs of increasing tension between Vietnamese and Western tourists, fueled (on both sides) by too much alcohol.
Ben Beo Port [MAP]: On the eastern side of the southern tip of Cat Ba Island, Ben Beo village is the main port for boats to the outlying islands, including Lan Ha Bay. Although an essential transit point if you’re planning on seeing the smaller islands, Ben Beo is a crowded and disorganized little place, with a lot of hassling, haggling, overcharging and bad tempers. [For more about boat tours, see Getting Around].
Gia Luan Hamlet [MAP]: Not much more than a collection of family homes near the northern port, Gia Luan has a few shops and simple snack joints by the roadside, and a decent guest house, which is convenient if you’re catching the early ferry to Tuan Chau the next morning (see Getting There & Around for details).
Gia Luan, in the north of the island, is a small hamlet & a scenic port from where the ferry to Ha Long leaves
Xuan Dam Hamlet [MAP]: On a very pretty stretch of the west coast, Xuan Dam is another small hamlet with a couple of gracefully decaying old homes. The setting is lovely: just off the coast road, on the cusp of a wide, flat agricultural plain, with buffalo wading in the mud and women working the fields, all in the shadow of limestone hills. There’s something about this quiet corner of the island, but development is on the way. For now, the area can be enjoyed at several good, budget accommodations, including the excellent Cat Ba Eco-Lodge.
Viet Hai Hamlet [MAP]: Inland in the east on Cat Ba Island, Viet Hai is a remote and isolated hamlet. Used primarily as an overnight stop for trekkers from the National Park or visitors on boat tours, Viet Hai have several good homestays at which to soak up the peace and isolation of this part of the island.
Most boat tours of the outlying islands (particularly Lan Ha Bay, due southeast of Cat Ba Island) depart from Ben Beo Port. It’s possible to organize and pay for a tour at the port, but it can be fairly chaotic there, so most travellers arrange their boat tours through travel agents in Cat Ba Town. Most boat tours offer 1 day excursions, including cruising through the limestone karsts of Lan Ha Bay, stopping for some kayaking, landing of a couple of sandy beaches, and some food and drink. Another option is to overnight – either on-board the boat or at one of the mini-resorts on the outlying islands. All this usually comes as a (reasonably priced) package. There are lots of operators and agents to choose from. You can start by checking out Langur’s Adventures and Cat Ba Ventures, both of which have offices in Cat Ba Town and websites.
*Please support Vietnam Coracle: If you use any of the relevant links below to book your accommodation, I make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.
If possible, avoid weekends and public holidays, when many of the hotels charge ridiculous rates and don’t offer value for money. Although most of the accommodation on the island is in Cat Ba Town, I would suggest staying anywhere but the town (with the exception of a few good hotels with good balconies and good harbour views). This is because, although Cat Ba Town is great for necessities, such as cafes, stores, restaurants – it’s not a particularly nice place to spend your time. There are several other little clusters of accommodation around Cat Ba Island, all of which will give you a much better impression of the island (and its people) than staying in Cat Ba Town itself. Even just a bit out of town, in Ha Sen, is much quieter, prettier, cleaner, and better value for money than in town. If you do stay in town then try to get a sea view room at one of the places I recommend below:
- Cat Ba Town
- Ha Sen (outer Cat Ba)
- Xuan Dam Hamlet
- Tran Chau & Lien Minh Hamlets
- National Park, Viet Hai & Gia Luan Hamlets
Cat Ba Town: The glut of hotels in Cat Ba Town is such that you never really need to book in advance, even on weekends and public holidays (unless, of course, you’re set on a particular place). The general standard is OK for the asking prices, but not great. What you really want is a harbour view, which many of the hotels have, but often charge a premium for. That said, competition drives prices down to reasonable levels, and there’s a good range in both the budget and mid-range price categories. Down the back-streets, particularly Nui Ngoc Street, which curls around behind the harbourfront, is where you’ll find the cheapest digs. The majority of hotels in all price categories are tall, narrow structures, maximizing their room numbers by building up, while keeping the cost of land down. The hostels and hotels listed below are but a tiny selection of the hundreds available. The following are ones I viewed and liked, but there are lots more in Cat Ba Town, many of which you can browse on this page:
• Secret Garden Hostel [MAP]; $7-$10: [BOOK HERE] A classic, chilled out, well-run backpacker hostel in the quieter back-streets of Cat Ba Town. Perks include a social vibe, good dorms, and interesting homemade food, including tasty vegan options.
• Mr Zoom Hostel [MAP]; $5-$10: [BOOK HERE] Nothing special, but rooms are cheap and fine. The main reason to stay here is for Mr Zoom’s island advice, information and tours, including climbing, kayaking and boat trips (but you don’t need to stay here to get that: just pop in and use it as a travel agent).
• Cat Ba Central Hostel [MAP]; $4-$20: [BOOK HERE] As the name suggests, this hostel is centrally located along the main harbourfront strip, and offers very cheap, clean dorms, and decent value private rooms. There are even glimpses of harbour views. It’s also worth checking out Cat Ba Pod Hostel nearby.
• Le Pont Bungalow Hostel [MAP]; $6-$30: [BOOK HERE] Just out of town (which is a good thing) on a rocky bluff to the south of Cat Ba harbour, Le Pont has very cheap dorms and reasonably priced private bungalows. The position is excellent, with 180 degree views of the harbour and bay. There’s a breezy bar, too.
Cat Ba Town has plenty of good value hostels: pictured above is Secret Garden, one of the best
• Quang Tung Hotel [MAP]; $25-$50: [BOOK HERE] With a harbourfront location and front rooms with balconies and good views, Quang Tung is one of the better mid-range hotels along the seafront in Cat Ba Town. Clean, tidy and tasteful but by no means luxurious, Quang Tung is about right for the price.
• Cat Ba Central Hotel 2 [MAP]; $20-$30: [BOOK HERE] With a lakeside position, away from the business and tourist razzmatazz of the main harbourfront, Cat Ba Central 2 is well-priced and well-positioned, with tidy, smart and spacious rooms.
• Tung Thu Beach Bungalow [MAP]; $15-$30: [BOOK HERE] On the scenic, sandy beach just north of central Cat Ba Town, Tung Thu Beach Bungalow is one of a couple of budget-oriented places to stay here. Dorms and private rooms are both fine, but it’s the location that most people stay here for.
• Hai Long Hotel [MAP]; $25-$40: [BOOK HERE] Despite its rather drab and dated interior and exterior, Hai Long Hotel is comfortable and clean with sea views. Although it lacks character, it’s centrally located on the seafront road and just about represents value for money.
• Cat Ba Dream Hotel [MAP]; $10-$25: [BOOK HERE] On the corner of Nui Ngoc Street and the seafront road, Cat Ba Dream is right in the middle of town, surrounded by restaurants, bars and other hotels. Considering its location, and the fact that many of the rooms have harbour views, Cat Ba Dream is very good value for money. Rooms are clean, bright and cosy, but sparsely furnished.
• Hung Long Harbour Hotel [MAP]; $35-$70: [BOOK HERE] An old-style ‘smart’ hotel, Hung Long feels quite dated, but it’s difficult to argue with its position – on the seafront at the southern end of Cat Ba harbour – and the excellent, sweeping sea views from its balconies. When rates are low, its good value for money, but when they go up, it’s far from it.
• Cat Ba Island Resort [MAP]; $65-$100: [BOOK HERE] A large resort aimed at package tourists, with swimming pools, slides, and spacious rooms located on Cat Co 1 Beach, not far from Cat Ba Town. There are currently other high-end resorts under construction on the Cat Co beaches, which will probably be open by the time you read this guide.
Ha Sen (outer Cat Ba): Just north of Cat Ba Town (not 5 minutes by road), a cluster of good accommodation options centre around a peaceful lake on Ha Sen Street, in the shadow of a limestone karst. It’s much more peaceful here than in Cat Ba Town. There are also a couple of other places to stay nearby at the junction at Hung Son:
• Corner Cat Ba Homestay [MAP]; $30: [BOOK HERE] It’s difficult to fault the simple, tasteful, cosy and bright lakeside bungalows at Corner Cat Ba Homestay. A very relaxing, comfortable, satisfying place to base yourself, and good value for money.
• Central Backpackers Hostel [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] OSimple, social, clean, fun and well-organized, Central Backpackers is one of the go-to hostels on Cat Ba Island. There’s a range of accommodation, from cheap dorms to cosy private rooms and wooden bungalows. There’s a pool, garden, BBQs, games, drinks and more.
• Cat Ba Mountain View [MAP]; $10-$25: [BOOK HERE] With a handful of wood, thatch and brick huts over several levels on a steep limestone crag, Cat Ba Mountain View has a friendly, communal vibe and good views of the surrounding area. There’s a range of sleeping options available.
• Sweet Potato Homestay [MAP]; $5-$15: [BOOK HERE] A homey atmosphere with cheap and clean but unremarkable rooms, Sweet Potato is best-known for its tasty food and drink, rather than its accommodation. But it’s still a pleasant place to stay.
Xuan Dam Hamlet: Scattered about the countryside and seafront on the west coast, several good accommodation options around Xuan Dam Hamlet offer a peaceful and relaxing environment in a good location, within easy reach of both Cat Ba Town and the National Park.
• Cat Ba Eco-Lodge [MAP]; $30-$50: [BOOK HERE] In many ways this is one of the best and most atmospheric lodgings on the island. Cat Ba Eco-Lodge is reached via a series of dirt and paved lanes leading through lovely countryside. Sheltered in a beautiful, verdant valley, the Eco-Lodge has dorms in wooden houses raised above the ground on wooden stilts, or private bungalows in wooden cabins under the canopy. There’s a bar, pool table, swimming pool, a friendly vibe, and plenty of outdoor space in which to wallow in the rural tranquility. At night, lanterns line the porches, hanging from the wooden beams.
• Woodstock Beach Camp [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] As the name suggests, this is a sprawling, hippy-inspired, backpacker hang out. Very successful, and very cool in a laid-back, not-trying-too-hard way, Woodstock feels like your university dorms has been transported to a tropical island beach. In other words, it’s very good at what it does. Access to the beach and beach bar is across the road, and that’s the only problem: as Cat Ba gets more and more popular, the coastal road is getting busier with coaches and trucks. This slightly ruins to chill-out vibe, particularly on weekends. Nevertheless, the dorms, tents, and private rooms are all good value for money and it’s a very sociable place to stay.
• Green Valley Camp [MAP]; $5-$25: [BOOK HERE] In a beautiful location, a kilometre or so inland, surrounded by pines and limestone crags, Green Valley Camp is a large and neat campground and activity site. It would be a great place to pitch a tent for a quiet night or two, but when I visited it was closed. It’s worth checking out.
Cat Ba Eco-Lodge is one of the best, most atmospheric & peaceful places to stay on the island
Woodstock Beach Camp is a quintessential backpacker hostel on the beach, with a social, fun vibe
Tran Chau & Lien Minh Hamlets: As the coast road veers inland some way northwest of Cat Ba Town, several quiet back-roads lead into the lush interior of the island. Here, there are a few, generally quiet, places to stay:
• De Dita Hostel [MAP]; $10-$30: [BOOK HERE] A big, multi-storey hostel on the coast road, with a swimming pool, bar, cafe and lots of crisp-looking rooms, De Dita is good value but oddly positioned: right on the increasingly busy road without direct access to beach or forest. It’s popular with Vietnamese phượt backpackers and families.
• Butterfly Valley Homestay [MAP]; tel: 0983 221 369: On the cusp of a peaceful valley, Butterfly Homestay (also called Lien Minh B&B) is a very good little place if you want to stay in an isolated and beautiful spot, or for climbers who want to get to work on the wall early in the day. Rooms are in an attractive, alpine-style chalet.
• Love House Homestay & Hostel [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] A strange assortment of converted container-style rooms and dorms, as well as brick cabins and nice gardens, Love House Homestay & Hostel is cheap and cheerful. Positioned in a valley near the coast road, it’s a pretty peaceful and intimate place to stay.
Cat Ba de Vita is a large, well-equipped hostel but in a strange location
National Park, Viet Hai & Gia Luan Hamlets: There are a few places to stay near the National Park HQ and even inside the park. Also, the isolated hamlet of Viet Hai, in the remote east of the island, has several homestay-style accommodations:
• Trung Trang Eco Resort [MAP]; $10-$20: [BOOK HERE] Near the exit of Trung Trang Cave, this lush and simple backpacker resort is set among trees beneath a limestone hill. Outdoor seating under the canopy, dorm rooms in colourfully painted, thatch-roof shacks, a decent bar and restaurant, and reasonable prices, all make Trung Trang Eco Resort quite a good option, especially if you’re planning to start a long trek from the National Park HQ early the next morning.
• Hoi Lake Farmstay [MAP]; $5-$30: [BOOK HERE] More of a mini-resort than a farmstay, Hoi Lake is a large property with attractive, simply furnished, thatched bungalows around an artificial lake inside the National Park boundaries. At the trailhead for both of the park’s main hikes, Hoi Lake is a pleasant enough place to stay and a comfortable base from which to explore the national park. The bar, including cocktails, and lakeside restaurant are particularly inviting after a long day’s trekking in the park.
• Whisper Nature Bungalow: [MAP]; $10-$30: [BOOK HERE] Over in the remote, eastern hamlet of Viet Hai, Whisper Nature Bungalow is one of several accommodations. Here, brick and thatch huts offer comfortable, private lodgings, but there are dorms available too. Over in Gia Lam Hamlet, near the northern tip of Cat Ba Island, there’s a decent little motel that’s convenient if you’re catching an early ferry to Tuan Chau the next morning.
Hoi Lake Farmstay is located inside the national park, with attractive bamboo-and-thatch bungalows
Food & Drink:
Although Cat Ba Town is the main centre for food and drink on the island, most accommodations outside of town have their own restaurant and bar, serving decent food and drink for their guests. Personally, I didn’t find the food scene on Cat Ba Island particularly rewarding compared to the high standards of the rest of Vietnam. However, seafood is often very good and there are some interesting places to sample street food. But, along the touristy seafront in Cat Ba Town, it’s mostly pizzas, burgers, beer and sub-standard Vietnamese food. I’m sure there’s much more to Cat Ba’s food scene that I was able to experience. Try asking locals for their recommendations:
Food: Unsurprisingly, seafood is big on Cat Ba Island. The floating seafood restaurants at the southern end of Cat Ba harbour are a popular place to sample some of Cat Ba’s famous seafood. However, for a more local atmosphere (and more local prices), head to the seafood joints (quán hải sản) across the lake at the northern end of the harbourfront.
On Cat Ba town’s seafront road, most restaurants are fairly overpriced considering the very average quality. However, Phuong Anh is a classic, local-style noodle soup shop, serving up good bowls of phở (beef or chicken noodle soup) in the mornings and evenings. Otherwise, the seafront is mostly burgers and pizzas. For Vietnamese cuisine, try the back-streets, although, even there, I was underwhelmed by what was on offer. Once you get away from the touristy streets, you’ll find some good, cheap, local cơm bình dân (rice eateries) and, in the evenings, thịt nướng (barbecued meat) stalls. Perhaps the best (nay, only) significant concentration of Vietnamese street is in Cat Ba’s central market. Here you’ll find all the dishes and all the local atmosphere that Vietnamese street food is justly famous for (a real relief after the poor food on the seafront).
Buddha Belly is a cute little vegetarian restaurant near the lake at the north end of Cat Ba town. Next to a pretty Buddhist shrine, Buddha Belly serves various vegetarian dishes, including set menus (with English translations) which change each day. Secret Garden has some interesting homemade dishes on a changing menu, such as hummus, guacamole, and vegan friendly options. Green Mango is a favourite for Western dishes: breakfast here is pretty good.
Buddha Belly is a cute vegetarian restaurant near a Buddhist shrine by the lake in Cat Ba Town
A beautiful bowl of traditional phở gà (chicken noodle soup) at Phuong Anh, on the seafront road in Cat Ba Town
Drink: Ca Ba Town has plenty of cafes on the harbourfront road where you can get decent espressos and other such Italian-style coffee, as well as Vietnamese-style iced coffee. My Way Cafe and Like Cafe have good coffee and good prices, as well as juices and smoothies – I ordered mine to take out and sat on a bench on the seafront or drank it with a bowl of noodles in the market. Oasis Bar has a long list of drinks – from cocktails to coffees to juices to smoothies – and a good location in the southern corner of Cat Ba seafront. I was told their Happy ‘Hour’ is from 12noon to 8pm. The Big Man Bar & Restaurant is a popular place for an evening tipple on the harbourfront road, watching the world go by. It has a backpacker-expat vibe and all the drinks deals which are required to please that clientele. Hair of the Dog Beach Bar, north of Cat Ba town, on Tung Thu Beach, is a popular backpacker hangout for shots, music and late nights. Secret Garden is a good place for a chilled coffee or juice during the day, or cocktails in the evenings. Green Mango also draws a crowd for drinks at night. And Mr Wilson beach bar, at Woodstock Beach Camp, is a really sociable place to drink.
Pouring the drinks at Big Man Bar, one of several popular night spots on the seafront in Cat Ba Town
Getting There & Around:
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There are many different ways to get to Cat Ba Island, all of which require a scenic ferry journey (although a cable car is due to open soon, so you won’t technically have to take a ferry). Cat Ba can be reached from the north (via Tuan Chau Island, near Ha Long City) or from the west (via Hai Phong City or Cat Hai Island). From the north, there is only one route to one port; from the west, there are several different routes to several different ports. All of the routes are well-served by regular ferries and onward connections to other destinations. However, approaching from the west is by far the quickest and most efficient of the two. Most travellers arrive/depart Cat Ba on one of the frequent, affordable, and convenient through-tickets, combining multiple transportations to/from major mainland destinations. Examples include: Hanoi→Cat Ba, Ninh Binh→Cat Ba, Sapa→Cat Ba, all of which can be purchased through travel agents in those places or on Baolau.com. On Cat Ba, there’s a limited bus network, and motorbikes/bicycles can be rented to get around the island:
- Hai Phong/Cat Hai Island→Cat Ba Island
- Ha Long/Tuan Chau Island→Cat Ba Island
- Getting Around Cat Ba Island
The city of Hai Phong and the nearby island of Cat Hai are the main gateways to Cat Ba Island. Hai Phong has good transportation connections with the rest of Vietnam and direct fast boats to Cat Ba Town. Cat Hai Island is now linked to Hai Phong via a new and impressive causeway, making road travel very fast and convenient. From Cat Hai Island it’s just a short hop on a regular car ferry to Cat Ba, and soon they’ll also be the option to take the cable car over:
By air: Daily flights serve Hai Phong’s Cat Bi Airport from multiple domestic destinations (including Saigon, Danang, Quy Nhon) and a few international ones, too. [Check flights on Baolau.com]
By bus: There are lots of daily services to most major destinations in the country. [Check bus times on Baolau.com]
By train: There’s a four times daily connection with Hanoi that’s especially convenient for travellers with motorbikes, because you can take your bike on the train with you, thus avoiding the horrible highways in/out of Hanoi. [For details see this guide].
Bus-Boat-Bus Combo: Through tickets on a bus-boat-bus combination between Hanoi-Hai Phong-Cat Ba are operated by several companies and only take 3-4 hours. [Check schedules on Baolau.com].
Hai Phong→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: There are direct fast boats between Hai Phong’s Ben Binh Pier (Pha Binh Port) to Cat Ba Pier, in the centre of town, several times a day. The journey only takes 1 hour and ticket prices are a reasonable 220,000vnd ($10). For schedules, times, prices and bookings check Baolau.com or use the search box below:
Search & Book: Type your travel dates below & click ‘Search’ to find current ticket prices & availability for boats between Hai Phong’s Ben Binh Port & Cat Ba Island:
Cat Hai Island→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: Most bus-boat combinations now use the Cat Hai ferry crossing, at Ben Got Pier, to get to Cat Ba Island. This is because a long, new causeway was recently completed, linking Hai Phong with Cat Hai Island. The ferry from Ben Got Pier runs regularly all day, and can accommodate cars, trucks, coaches, motorbikes, bicycles and passengers. The crossing from Ben Got, at the eastern tip of Cat Hai Island, to Cai Vieng Port, at the northwestern tip of Cat Ba Island, only takes 10 minutes. Ticket prices ranges from 12,000vnd (passenger) to 45,000vnd (motorbike) and upwards depending on the size of the vehicle and the number of passengers travelling. There’s no need to book in advance. Note that Ben Got is also where the new cable car to Cat Ba with be once it’s completed (probably by the time you read this).
HA LONG/TUAN CHAU ISLAND→CAT BA ISLAND:
Although Ha Long City is the main gateway for cruises on Ha Long Bay, it’s the secondary gateway for Cat Ba Island, after Hai Phong. The city has decent transport connections with Hanoi, and the daily ferry service from Tuan Chau Port to Cat Ba is one of the most scenic public ferries anywhere in Vietnam:
By air: Recently opened, Van Don Airport is 50km east of Ha Long City, with daily flights to/from major Vietnamese cities, including Saigon, and some international routes, too. [Check flights on Baolau.com]
By bus: There are lots of daily services to many major destinations in the country, including services throughout the day to Hanoi. [Check bus times on Baolau.com]
By train: There’s a daily train connection with Hanoi that’s especially convenient for travellers with motorbikes, because you can take your bike on the train with you, thus avoiding the horrible highways in/out of Hanoi. However, it’s a very slow service [Check train times on Baolau.com or ask direct at the station].
Tuan Chau→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: Probably the most scenic public ferry voyage anywhere in Vietnam, a car ferry plies between Tuan Chau Island (essentially a suburb of Ha Long City) and Cat Ba Island’s northern port, Gia Luan, several times daily. Journey time is roughly 1 hour, and there are 3-5 sailings every day (low/high season). There’s plenty of room for cars, buses and motorbikes, as well as passengers. It’s a simple ferry with lots of open deck space, a toilet, and a rustic on-board ‘snack-shack’. But it’s all about the scenery on the voyage, most of which involves gliding between limestone karsts covered in jungle, poking through the mist as they rise vertically from the calm sea. People pay hundreds of dollars for this sort of experience on smart cruise ships: on the Tuan Chau ferry, it’s only a few dollars (passenger: 80,000vnd | motorbike: 100,000vnd | car: 480,000vnd). Check the schedule at either Tuan Chau or Gia Luan ports for current information, but at the time of writing (August 2019) the sailing times were:
TUAN CHAU PORT (HA LONG) → GIA LUAN POST (CAT BA)
Departures: 7.30am, 9.00am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.00pm (daily*)
GIA LUAN PORT (CAT BA) → TUAN CHAU PORT (HA LONG)
Departures: 9.00am, 11.30am, 13.00pm, 3.00pm, 4.00pm (daily*)
*These are high season sailings (April-September). During low season (October-March) there are only three sailings a day in each direction. It’s best to check current times at the ports.
GETTING AROUND CAT BA ISLAND:
Cat Ba is a large island – the second biggest in Vietnam, as far as I know – and exceptionally rugged. Because of the difficult topography, the road network is limited, but it’s still possible to go by road from south to north through the interior of the island and along the entire west coast – both of which are beautiful drives. Hiking in the national park is excellent, and walking around Cat Ba Town is fine, too. Bicycles, motorbikes, taxis, electric carts, and local buses are all effective ways of getting around the island. Also, boats can get you to more remote parts of Cat Ba, where roads don’t yet lead:
Motorbiking around Cat Ba Island is a great experience and a good way to see the countryside and visit the island’s attractions. Motorbikes are available to rent from most hotels and tour agencies. They’re very inexpensive: 50,000-150,000vnd per day. But the general quality of the bikes is rather bad: ancient, poorly maintained Yamaha Nouvos. However, as the distances are short, they’re adequate to get you around.
Ride cautiously: there are many blind corners, steep ascents, gravel on the road (treacherous), and dangerously lackadaisical local driving. I also saw dozens of foreign riders driving too fast, not wearing helmets, and openly drinking and driving. Don’t be an idiot: you will get injured (I met plenty for travellers who had hurt themselves on bikes on the island), and the police will stop you, especially in Cat Ba Town, where they are out in force. Far too many foreign riders zip around without helmets. Aside from safety, it’s a catalyst for deteriorating foreign-Vietnamese relations. Many Vietnamese people I meet, especially of the younger generation, are sick of seeing foreign visitors and expats behaving as if the rules don’t apply to them, or at least getting away with things that locals can’t. And they’re right: if this was Germany, and in Germany the law stated you must wear your helmet while riding a motorbike (as it does in Vietnam), would foreign visitors abide by that law? Of course they would. Don’t confirm the increasingly negative image of foreigners in Vietnam: wear your helmet and ride responsibly.
Bicycles can also be rented from some places, and are a pleasant way to see the island. But bear in mind that the roads are quite challenging, especially in the heat and humidity that Cat Ba is famous for. [For route and road advice see Motorbiking & Biking].
By Taxi & Bus:
Taxis meet the ferries from the mainland at the ports on Cat Ba Island, or you can ask the staff at your hotel to arrange one for you. Taxis are generally inexpensive (especially when shared) and can to take you to many of the sights around the island. There are also electric buggies (mini-buses, really) that ply short distances between Cat Ba Town, Cannon Fort, and the three Cat Co Beaches. Electric buggies are 10,000vnd per ride, but are generally used for transporting large groups of domestic tourists to and from the above mentioned places.
A convenient public bus system operates on the island, linking Cat Ba Town with Cai Vieng Port and Gia Luan Port via the National Park HQ. Ask the tourist information office at Cat Ba Pier or your hotel staff for times and schedules.
Cat Ba Town is small enough to manage on foot. Strolling up and down the seafront road is very pleasant. But, in town proper, the streets get very steep and are often clogged with tourist traffic. Elsewhere on the island, there’s good trekking in the National Park (see Hiking, Climbing & View Points for details) and you can even strike out on your own on several jungle tracks that you’ll see winding into the countryside off the island roads. But, obviously, if you choose to do this, you must be very careful.
By Boat: Boat tours of Cat Ba’s coastline and the outlying islands can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. Most boats leave from Ben Beo Port, not far from Cat Ba Town (see Boat Tours for more details).
Damp and hot: these are the two adjectives I’d use to describe my experience of Cat Ba Island’s weather. Humidity is a characteristic of Cat Ba, whether in the hot summer months, between April and August, or the cooler (sometimes chilly) autumn and winter months, between September and February. I’ve only ever experienced Cat Ba in the summer months, when the weather is fine: sunny, hot and humid, with tropical downpours and occasional sea mists in the mornings and evenings. According to locals I spoke with, the best time of year is September/October and and March/April. Either way, because Cat Ba is a large island in a big bay with land masses to the north and west, and open sea to the south and east, weather can be very changeable and unpredictable.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this island and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here
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