20.8000° N, 106.9997° E
THE BEST THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO EXPLORE ON THE BEAUTIFUL ISLAND OF CAT BA, VIETNAM - A LESS TOURISTY ALTERNATIVE TO HALONG BAY.
Cat Ba, the largest of the 367 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago - which in turn, makes up the southeastern edge of Lan Ha Bay - is one of the most exciting and adventurous places in all of Vietnam.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have lived on Cat Ba Island for almost 6,000 years, with the earliest settlements being found on the southeastern tip of the island close to the area where Ban Beo harbor sits today. In more recent history, the area was inhabited mostly by Viet-Chinese fishermen and was largely influenced by both the French and American wars that took place there. During the Vietnam (or American) War, the island was used as a strategic lookout point. Due to that, Cat Ba Island was bombed regularly, which in turn led many locals (civilians and soldiers alike) to take cover in the numerous caves that dot the island.
Today, the island has become one of the most popular places for outdoor adventure in all of Vietnam. Some of the most common activities include kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, climbing (including free water soloing), swimming, and caving.
We journeyed to the island with plans to partake in a few of the popular adventures, most notably mountain biking and caving. But to also get a feel for the area itself: the culture, the landscape and the history. In the end, Cat Ba Island became one of our favorite destinations in Vietnam. Not only because of the sheer beauty of it, but because of all the amazing (and authentic) things you can do there.
Here is our in-depth, adventure-focused guide for Cat Ba Island in Northern Vietnam.
THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO CAT BA ISLAND
\\ A Few Things to Know About Cat Ba Island
| The main town on the island is called Cat Ba Town. This is where most of the ferries from the mainland will port, and where the majority of the lodging options, restaurants and cafes, and tour companies are. This is a good place to start when heading to the island.
| The island has become a popular destination for travelers, most notably during the peak summer months (April-November). During that time expect prices to be higher and the island to feel a bit more crowded. That being said, we visited in mid-May and we didn’t notice a ton of travelers. No matter what, Cat Ba Island will always have fewer tourists than nearby Halong Bay.
| Over a third of the island is protected as a national park - which is absolutely amazing. If visiting the island definitely make sure to take the time to explore the beautiful national park, which not only includes the interior limestone karst forests but also some smaller islands offshore (the first national park in the country to include a marine component). Learn more about the park below.
| The currency for all of Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong (VND). The exchange rate is 1 USD = 22972.08 dong. So about $1 is roughly 23000 dong. Similarly, 1 Euro = 28044 dong.
\\ Top Adventures on Cat Ba Island
Even though Cat Ba Island is not huge, it has a lot of amazing adventures to take on - both on land and on the water. Below are a few of the best ones.
Mountain Biking Around the Island
This is by far one of the best adventures you can do on Cat Ba Island. Not only do you get to explore almost all of the interior of the island, but you also get to do it under your own power and be able to go at your own pace.
We rented mountain bikes in the main town for about $15 for a full day. Now, while the price is quite good, be prepared for the bikes to be in pretty “rough” shape: worn tires, questionable brakes, gears not working properly, etc. Luckily, the ride itself is not anything intense - meaning that even with an okay bike you will still easily be able to do the whole ride.
INSIDER TIP: this is a good spot to rent bikes in Cat Ba Town.
There are a couple of routes you can take on the island: Cat Ba Town --> Phu Long Harbor (~25 kilometers), Gia Luan Harbor –> Cat Ba Town (~25 kilometers) and the Small Loop, which starts in Cat Ba Town and then heads through the national park and back again (you also go through Hien Hao village and Tran Chau fishing village (~31 kilometers). Another option, if you are looking to spend all day on the bikes and really want to see as much as possible, is the Big Loop. This route heads first out to Phu Long (where you have the chance to check out a cave) then on the way back turn onto the jungle route and do the smaller loop back to town. This will measure around 50 kilometers.
If you plan to bike through the national park - which is what we did and absolutely loved - then make sure to stop at Hospital Cave and Trung Trang Cave and various observation points in the park.
Exploring the Caves
Another adventure you definitely have to do is explore at least one of the caves on the island. Luckily, as we mentioned previously, you can combine cave exploration with mountain biking.
A few of the more touristy ones (but don’t let that turn you off - this time at least) are Hospital Cave and Trung Trang Cave. Both can be reached on the main road that runs through Cat Ba National Park (it is paved and in pretty good shape).
Hospital Cave got its name because during the Vietnam War the large three-story cavern was used as a hospital for wounded and recovering soldiers. It also housed a doctor’s office, recovery rooms, offices for leading military members and even a cinema. While it is empty now, it is still a very interesting spot to see on the island.
Trung Trang Cave is a large cave system (it measures 300 meters) not far away from Hospital Cave. While today it is known as Trung Trang, in recent history it has been called the Bat Cave (because of its resident bat population, and not because Christian Bale hangs out there…) and Navy Cave (during the Vietnam War it housed the Navy offices). You can tour the cave and view the mesmerizing stalactites and get a feel for the underground biome, and maybe even catch a glimpse of one of the cave’s resident bats.
| COST: it costs 15,000 VND ($0.65) to enter Hospital Cave
| WHERE: Hospital Cave is 10 kilometers from Cat Ba Town and Trung Trang Cave is 5 kilometers after that
Cat Ba National Park
Not only is this beautiful area a national park, but it is also a World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve. The park measures 263 square kilometers (102 square miles), with 173 square kilometers of that on land (the other 90 square kilometers is made up of inshore water). Cat Ba National Park is home to 32 species of mammals, including the highly, highly endangered white-headed langur - one of the rarest primates in the world.
While you are not likely to catch a glimpse of one of those monkeys you might have the opportunity to see civet (a small carnivorous animal like a fox), deer, macaques and squirrels, or more likely one of the 78 species of birds that call the park home. For the best chance to see wildlife, head out on one of the numerous trails that crisscross the park. Including, a short but steep hike up to the top of Ngu Lam Peak or a full-day journey to the village of Viet Hai.
| COST: some people recommend having a guide for the Viet Hai village hike, which costs 500,000 VND to 700,000 VND ($21-30 USD).
| WHERE: the entrance to the national park is just up the road from Trung Trang Cave, and around 20 kilometers from Cat Ba Town. The exact location is here.
Visiting Cannon Fort
Another spot worth seeking out is Cannon For, which sits 177 meters above the town on a nice hill. This is a great spot to learn more about the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) and get an amazing view of the nearby town, coastline and the limestone karsts of Lan Ha Bay just below. If you are looking for a good sunset spot on the island, then this is a winner.
To reach the fort, head out of town on the road to Ben Beo (the road is called Cao Beo) then turn right. There should be signs telling you you are on the right road. From there it starts to climb up and around until you reach the fort.
Some other adventures you may consider doing include spending an afternoon on one of the nearby beaches, renting kayaks and heading out into the maze of karsts that is Lan Ha Bay, or spending a night or two at one of the many homestays in the area. No matter what adventures you decide to do, we know you will have a very memorable time on Cat Ba Island.
\\ Getting to Cat Ba Island (and Getting Around)
Boat to the Island
You can easily reach Cat Ba Island by taking a ferry from the coastal town of Haiphong. The boat leaves from Phà Binh/Benh Binh ferry station and takes around 45 minutes to reach Cat Ba town. The normal rate is 240,000 VND ($10.50) but in the low season it’s about 180,000 VND ($8).
There are a number of other options to reach the island. We took the ferry straight to Cat Ba from Haiphong and it was easy and quite affordable. If you are curious about other ways to reach Cat Ba check this out.
If you are looking to get around the island but don’t want to do it on a bicycle then renting a scooter is probably the best way to go. Plus, renting one is incredibly cheap (like roughly $5 or less a day cheap). Having your own wheels really gives you that freedom to go explore the island, on your own terms. So if you have any inkling or desire, do it.
Another option is if you already have a motorbike you can actually take another ferry across from the mainland to Cat Ba. While doing this can be a bit more tricky, it might be totally worth it if you have a bike you like already. To get your motorbike to Cat Ba first head to Halong City (the popular starting off point for tours of Halong Bay). From there, get on one of the ferries that run to the northern port of Cat Ba Island (three run a day). From the port, it is about a 40-minute drive to Cat Ba Town. The ferry from Halong City to Cat Ba Island is 100,000 VND ($4.35) with a motorbike and 80,000 ($3.48) without. The last ferry is usually around 3 PM (depending on the season).
\\ Lodging on Cat Ba Island
Overall, lodging on Cat Ba Island is pretty inexpensive. For the most part, your options include staying either in a hotel, a hostel or if you are looking to stay for longer than a weekend (and want more space) at an Airbnb. The majority of places to stay are in the main hub of the island, Cat Ba Town. Below are average prices during the high season (April-November). Note: all prices are in USD ($) and are for the month of July.
Cat Ba Town really has hotels to fit every budget. Some of the more luxurious hotels will cost between $77-$100 a night, while some of the more economical spots will range between $32-$45. But, that being said, we highly suggest finding a spot in person instead of booking online for many of the hotels in town do not show their rates online and can really only be reserved in person.
When we first landed on Cat Ba we didn’t have a spot picked out for the night. Luckily, due to the high number of hotels and hostels available, we were able to walk around until we found one at a good price (we believe we paid around $15 a night).
The same can be said about hostels. If you want a good price then once you get off the ferry start walking around the main city center (or even better, farther away from the main city center) until you find one that fits your needs.
If you are the type of traveler that needs to book ahead of time just for peace of mind, then a couple of good ones are Catba Pod Hostel, Secret Garden Hostel and Luna’s House. All three can be booked on Hostelworld. Their prices range between $17-$35.
If you are looking to stay longer than just a weekend, then getting an Airbnb might be the best option. This is especially true if you are planning to work during the day and therefore need a spot to spread out. Or if you simply just want a place entirely to yourself that also comes with amenities such as a kitchen, laundry, and parking.
Cat Ba Island is one of those places in the world where you feel like you have left Earth and have instead been transported to a whole other planet. At least it felt like that to us. Maybe it is the stunning landscape (there is something about limestone karsts against the vibrant green rainforest that makes us smile), or the delicious (and quite affordable) local seafood, or maybe it is the ability to travel around this paradise on two wheels easily (and under your own power if you’d like). Or really maybe it is all three things combined.
Either way, Cat Ba Island, while it is next to one of the most famous destinations in Vietnam (Halong Bay), is entirely worth a visit on its own. So if you have the chance, we highly suggest spending time on its shores, exploring its rainforest, and just taking in the sounds, smells and sights of Cat Ba Island.