Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, has experienced a tourism surge in recent years. The central hub of Cat Ba Town is now framed by a chain of low-rise concrete hotels along its once-lovely bay, but the rest of the island is largely untouched and as wild as ever. With idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s overdevelopment.
Almost half of Cat Ba Island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves.
Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. The island’s largest body of water is Ech Lake (3 hectares).
Things to see and do:
Cat Ba National Park
Avid hikers should not hesitate to check out this beautiful national part, noted for its mangroves, subtropical evergreen forests, freshwater lakes and even some coral reefs down along the coast.
Cat Ba town has three beaches within walking – or golf buggy – distance: Cat Co 1, 2 and 3.
The first beach is called Cat Co 3 — you can reach it by following the harbour road west until it ends, and then going over the headland (if you’re on a motorbike, they’ll charge you 5,000 VND to park it at the base). Here you’ll find Sunrise Resort, but the beach in front of it is open to the public.
If you head west on the harbour road but turn up the hill on the left before the Harbour View Hotel, you’ll reach Cat Co 1 – straight ahead – and Cat Co 2 by turning left towards Cat Co Beach Resort. Both are quieter than Cat Co 3.You can also walk to Cat Co 1 from Cat Co 3, and it’s worth the walk, with fantastic views over the bay and the beach from the cliff-edge path.
All beaches have umbrellas, loungers and chairs for rent and drinks are available. Cat Co 2 also has a small restaurant. You can rent a kayak from Cat Co 3 for 200,000VND per hour.
Boat trips around the Bay
As in Ha Long City, it’s easy enough to book a boat trip out of Cat Ba Island to explore the Bay, either with a travel agent or direct at Beo harbour, 2 km from the centre of town.
It’s probably a better option than Ha Long: you’re much closer to the action on Cat Ba so there’s less time spent getting to the pretty bit. Also, tours explore beautiful Lan Ha Bay, which you won’t get to if travelling from Ha Long City, unless you’re out for three days.
You can also book two- or three-day trips around the bay or get a boat out to Monkey Island – for some beach time – or with a stop to cycle to Viet Hai Village.
Travel agent prices range from $10 to $25 for a day trip, depending on route. You won’t save anything if you buy your Monkey Island trip at the harbour, and times are inconsistent, so you’re best off booking with an agent, but if you want a short tour of the bay it could be a bit cheaper. You’ll pay 750,000 VND for a two-hour tour plus 20,000 to 30,000 VND entry, but don’t forget you also need to get to the pier.
Hospital Cave was a secret, bomb-proof hospital built during the American War and was used as a safe house for VC leaders until 1975.
Access is via a woodland path and some rickety steps and inside you will find a selection of concrete rooms. The cave is often included as part of an island tour and is also easy to reach from Cat Ba town by motorbike or motorbike taxi (around 200,000 VND return) en route to the national park. It is a fascinating stop off, particularly for those interested in the war.
Entry is 15,000 VND but we’d highly recommend paying an extra 30,000 VND for a guide as there is no information in the cave.
The cave is located 10 kilometres north of Cat Ba town, inland, on the way to the national park. Look out for a sign on the right saying Hospital Cave and pay at the store opposite.
Build atop a 177 metre-high hill overlooking Lan Ha Bay, the historical side of Cannon Fort may not appeal to everyone but it’s worth the trek up there for the views alone.
The fort was built during the French era as a look-out point and you will find the cannon bunkers and rooms containing memorabilia and a selection of paintings, photos and propaganda photos. Entry is 60,000 VND payable at the foot of the hill.
To get there, head up Nui Nuoc (west) and turn left. The walk from the ticket office to the top is a steady climb. Free parking is available at the top.
Places to sleep
Cat Ba Harbour
Practically every place to stay in Cat Ba is located along the harbour road (1-4 Street) or the Nui Ngoc loop. For our purposes, we’ll refer to the two branches as Nui Ngoc (east) and Nui Ngoc (west). It’s rare for places to include breakfast – we’ve mentioned it if breakfast is included, otherwise assume it’s not.
Cat Ba Harbour Inn (309 Nui Ngoc Rd (East), Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 388 8324)
Cat Ba Sea View (220, 1/4 Street, Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 388 8210)
Hoa Phuong Hotel (1/4 Street, Cat Ba Island (towards beach end of main strip)
T: (031) 388 7735)
Sea Pearl Hotel (219, 1/4 Street, Cat Ba
T: (031) 368 8567)
Ali BaBa’s Hotel (175, 1/4 Street, Cat Ba Island
T: (01672) 409 416)
Noble House (1/4 Street, Cat Ba Island (opposite the entrance to the pier)
T: (031) 888 363)
Sun and Sea Hotel (26 – 28 Nui Ngoc Rd (West), Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 388 8315)
Princes Hotel (Nui Ngoc Rd (East), Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 388 8899)
Away from the Harbour
There aren’t many places to stay other than town, but a couple of pricier options are located on the nearby beaches and Monkey Island, and a so-called eco-resort is found inland.
Sunrise Resort (Cat Co 3 Beach, Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 388 7360-3)
Cat Ba Eco-Lodge (Xuan Dam Village, Cat Ba Island
T: (031) 368 8966)
Cat Co Beach Resort (Cat Co 2, Cat Ba Island
T: (04) 3928 5786 (ext 227))
Cat Ba Island Resort & Spa (Cat Co 1, Cat Ba Island)