Home » Cat Ba Island is the best thing about Halong Bay. This is why.

Cat Ba Island is the best thing about Halong Bay. This is why.

written by Ayngelina Brogan January 27, 2020
Beautiful view of Halong Bay

Without a doubt, one of the most popular things to do in Vietnam is to take a Halong Bay cruise. And for good reason; the region is stunning.

The views are incredible. You feel like you’re in the middle of a misty magical land away from it all. When you share your photos, everyone is jealous. It’s one of those special places you will never forget.

Taking a cruise seems to be the most popular way to explore the area. You just need to show up and everything is taken care of for you. No need to plan anything!

After my Halong Bay cruise I stayed at Cat Ba Island and realized it was better suited for me. I like to do things independently and it’s possible to explore Halong Bay using Cat Ba as a base.

EXPLORE CAT BA ISLAND ON THESE SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES

two people in a small boat cruising past a limestone karst in Vietnam

Cruising, Cat Ba style. Photo by Nicola Marshall.

About Cat Ba Island

It is the largest island in Halong Bay and there’s enough to keep you busy for days. If sustainable tourism is a concern, nearly half of Cat Ba is a national park. Both its land and the ecosystem in the water is a protected area.

Here you’ll find the same small fishing villages tucked in the jagged limestone edges of the island and sandy beaches to welcome newcomers.

That said, arriving in Cat Ba can be a bit overwhelming at first. It is the hub for the area, with lots of cheap hotels and tourist agencies selling boat trips and other tours. The city can be crowded with tourists who are on limited time to take one of the tours and move on. Don’t let this put you off.

It’s easy to lose the crowds and explore more of the island and its waters. You can kayak the area and see Halong Bay from a completely different perspective, navigating its crevices. Swimming and snorkelling is incredible here. There’s also great hiking, and amazing seafood.

GET WELL AND TRULY OFF THE BEATEN PATH ON OUR 11-DAY HIKE, BIKE & KAYAK SMALL GROUP ADVENTURE AROUND NORTHERN VIETNAM. FULL DETAILS HERE. 

My favourite things to do on Cat Ba Island

1. Hike in the National Park

Two hikers in a jungle.

Jungle hikes. Photo by Stephane Bidouze.

Half of Cat Ba Island was designated a park in 1986, and in 2004 it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This ensures the flora, fauna and local wildlife will be protected, including an endangered monkey called the Cat Ba Langur.

Don’t expect to see one on your hikes though. They are much like the elusive wild sloths in Costa Rica; almost impossible to spot. There are only 60 remaining on the island.

Monkey spotting aside, there are great hikes for every fitness level, with well-marked paths so that travellers can explore independently. If you’re feeling adventurous and have head torches check out Trung Trang Cave, which has impressive stalactites.

Looking for a big adventure? Trek through the park to Viet Hai fishing village, which has recently developed an eco tourism project. It’s a great way to support locals, the environmental efforts and help maintain traditional customs.

RELATED: THE CHANGING FACE OF TOURISM IN RURAL VIETNAM

2. Snap the best view of Halong Bay

People sitting in kayaks in Halong Bay

Kayaking around the bay. Photo by Nicola Marshall.

If you’re looking for that Instagram-perfect photo of Halong Bay, it is not on a boat. Instead head straight up the lush island hillside to the Cannon Fort.

It’s only a 30 minute walk from town but can take longer as you’ll want to stop to see the tunnels, cannons and gun emplacements from the various wars.

At the top you’ll get a spectacular view overlooking the bay. If you go later in the day when the fishermen return you’ll also see the fishing boats in Halong Bay dotting the waters.

At the top there’s a cafe and small museum. Nothing out of the ordinary, but much welcomed if you need a cool drink.

RELATED: WHY NINH BINH AND LAN HA BAY SHOULD BE PART OF YOUR VIETNAM TRAVEL PLANS

3. Spend the day on a deserted beach

There are a few beaches on Cat Ba Island and which one you go to depends on how you want to spend your day. Tourist agencies sell day trips to busiest beaches, called Cat Bat Beach 1, 2 and 3.

But if you came on vacation to escape it all, you can find that too. There are plenty of great beaches with few people on them just a short drive, kayak or hike away.

Newsletter subscription banner4. Visit the market

Take a short walk outside the town core to reach the local food market. This isn’t a tourist-trap souvenir market but where locals on the island go to get their ingredients daily.

5. Explore the Hospital Cave

You cannot visit the country without learning about the Vietnam American War. If you’ve grown up only hearing about it through American media it is fascinating to see the other side.

The Hospital Cave is literally a hospital inside a cave that was in use until 1975. It’s best to hire a guide in advance to take you, as there isn’t much information on site with only mannequins throughout to give perspective.

RELATED: 5 BEAUTIFUL WAYS TO STEP OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN VIETNAM

6. Eat seafood, fresh off the boat

If you want to eat pizza or pasta head to Nui Ngoc Street, where everything is in English and international food reigns. But who goes to Vietnam to eat pizza?

A street food stand at night

Head off the main drag for a local dining experience. Photo by Nicola Marshall.

Cat Ba is an island of fishermen. They are known for shrimp, clams, octopus and a variety of fish. If you get off the main strip, there are tons of great local spots where you’ll eat fresh Vietnamese seafood dishes for a fraction of the price. The closer you get to the fishing ports, the better the food will be.

Curious about Cat Ba? Explore it now on a small group adventure in Vietnam with Intrepid. Check out our range of trips here

Feature photo by Stephane Bidouze via Shutterstock. 

 

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2 comments

Sue January 29, 2020 - 3:46 am

We just came back from the 30-day SE Asia Loop trip, and wish that we could have done Cat Ba island for a few days instead of the overnight boat in Ha Long Bay. Your recos sound WAY more appealing! The overnight boat trip was fun, but felt like we were on a boat superhighway – other boats everywhere we looked, both during the day and overnight. Intrepid Travel, would you consider changing the itinerary???

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Intrepid Travel January 29, 2020 - 10:24 am

Hi Sue,

Thanks so much for the feedback!

We agree — Halong Bay is very popular and the experience is a little less flexible, given the government restriction on activities in that part of the bay. In 2019 we changed several of our itineraries to include a visit to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay instead of the traditional Halong Bay route. This year, we have changed another itinerary to do this as well. We review our itineraries every year and traveller feedback is a key component of this process. Your comments will be taken into consideration when we next review this trip 🙂

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