If you’re looking for a short break in paradise from the chaos that is Hanoi, look no further than Cat Ba island. Getting from Hanoi to Cat Ba is one simple booking away and you can spend your time relaxing on the beaches with a cold beer, hiking through the Cat Ba national park, or kayaking among the hundreds of islands that make up the Cat Ba Archipelago to name a just few things. With the same rugged beauty as Halong Bay but with far fewer tourists, Cat Ba is a must visit for anybody in northern Vietnam.
Cat Ba island
Cat Ba island is the largest of 367 islands that make up the Cat Ba Archipelago. It is the south-eastern part of Lan Ha Bay and the island belongs to the Haiphong province. Approximately half the island is covered by a national park which is home to the endangered Cat Ba Langur. The island is home to a variety of natural habitats which include limestone karsts, tropical limestone forests, coral reefs, mangroves, lagoons, beaches, and willow swamp forests. These habitats allow for a high rate of biodiversity on the island.
The name Cat Ba (or Cát Bà to include the correct Vietnamese inflections) means ‘Women’s Island’. The legend attached to the name is that several centuries ago 3 women of the Tran Dynasty were killed, their bodies floated all the way to the island and washed up on 3 different beaches to be found by local fishermen. The islanders built temples to each of the women and the island became known as Cat Ba.
Getting from Hanoi to Cat Ba and back again
There are many different ways to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba island. We opted for the simplest option which involves catching a bus in Hanoi, travelling through Haiphong and over the longest sea bridge in Southeast Asia, catching a ferry from Cat Hai island, and then getting taken in a second bus to Cat Ba town. All of it was organised by one company so there was no way we could miss a bus or ferry and all the planning was done for us. We could also book a return trip with them and we ended up using their Lan Ha-Halong Bay day tour, so we finished the tour at exactly the right time to catch our return bus. We used Cat Ba Express which is a fantastic company and we would highly recommend using them. The whole trip, 2 return tickets, cost us VND 1,280,000.
We caught a 4am train from our little town of Phu Ly to get to Hanoi in time for the 7:45am bus to Cat Ba. Getting to the island took about 4 hours and we had a knowledgeable guide, Tinh, explaining things and telling us stories as we went. Our ticket included a hotel drop-off. Coming back from Cat Ba to Hanoi we left at around 15:30. We needed to get back to the Hanoi railway station and our guide seemed to imply that the drop-off would be okay. When we got to Hanoi though we were informed that actually we would be dropped off ‘nearby’ because it was too far away for the bus to go, despite the station being on the edge of the old quarter. When we got dropped off we were told it would be a 5 minute walk and were pointed down a road. Luckily for Google maps because it turns out our guide had pointed us in completely the opposite direction and it was in fact a 30 minute walk… It would have been shorter if they had just let us off at the Cat Ba Express offices.
On a side note, the public transport in Vietnam seems to be extremely efficient and simple to use. We always wonder how easy it will be to book tickets when we are visiting a new place but there are 2 websites baolau.com and 12go.asia, which allow you to make all your bookings for buses, trains, ferries and flights in English. There is a small processing fee that comes with booking online but it is well worth it for the convenience.
How to spend 2 days in Cat Ba
Find lunch and a massage
We had arrived a little too early to check in to our hotel so we dropped off our bags at reception and headed out in search of some lunch and a massage. Both of which we were spoilt for choice but we settled on the Cat Ba Seaview Hotel for a massage. We had to wait for a little while as a couple before us were finishing up but there were luxurious couches for us to relax on. We had a 1 hour, full body massage for VND 200,000 each (that is just under $10!) and it was incredible. We do believe that tipping for a service like that is necessary so we added and extra VND 200,000, which was highly appreciated by our masseuse.
After our massage we found a little street kebab banh mi just outside the hotel and enjoyed our lunch while looking over the Cat Ba town harbour.
Unwind on the beach
You can’t visit an island and not spend some time lying on a beach or floating around the water. We were quite shattered after our early start and long trip so we decided to head to the closest beach to Cat Ba town. We had seen signs to ‘Bad Dog Beach Club’ and thought that would be a good place to start.
It took about 20 minutes to walk from the centre of Cat Ba town to Tung Thu beach. There were only about 10 people spread across the whole beach when we arrived. The sand was soft and flat and the water was incredibly smooth. We spent most of the afternoon either sleeping on our towels or paddling around in the warm water. As the afternoon wore on we moved up into the trees and found some deck chairs and laid back with some cold beers while we took in the incredible view. By then more people had arrived and the ocean was getting busier, so it was a good time to move. It’s absolutely stunning out there and we couldn’t have found a better place to spend a relaxing afternoon.
One serious downside is the plastic pollution. It was horrible to see so much floating around and it highlights the need to do everything we can to reduce what we use and clean up what is already there. There were several people doing their best to clean up what was around, we threw in some rubbish that we had managed to fish out, but every day there will be more.
The best view for dinner
Having been on the road for a while now we are at peace with not eating local every day and sometimes you just need some comfort food. When the sunlight started to fade and the mosquitoes came out hunting we decided it was time to find some dinner. Almost every building on the main road is a restaurant so it came down to looking at what was on the menu. The Marigold restaurant offered an amazing set menu with a fresh salad, fried pumpkin sticks, fried squid, pork loin, mashed potatoes, and dessert, as well as an 8th floor viewing deck where we could eat. It was too good to pass up!
We spent the evening sipping alcoholic slushies, eating incredible food, and enjoying the amazing view over the harbour. As the evening set in, lights across the harbour turned the water into a shimmering wonderland. We were glad we had arrived when we had because the restaurant started to fill up around 8pm and the restaurant was woefully short on staff. Our dessert was forgotten about until we inquired about it, we had ordered coffee and only one ever came despite reminding the staff 2 more times (we were billed for both), and we saw the exact drink we ordered get delivered to the table next to us 20 minutes after reminding them we needed ours. This did leave a little cloud over an otherwise perfect evening but sometimes that happens! We eventually were too tired to argue and set off back to our hotel.
A night at Hoang Phuc hotel
Not having been to Cat Ba before we weren’t sure on the best place to stay so we looked for somewhere with good reviews and at a reasonable price. We found the Hoang Phuc hotel, about a 5 minute walk from the main street in Cat Ba town. The room was clean, the beds were comfortable, the shower was delightful, and the booking came with breakfast. We only needed the hotel for a place to sleep as we were out for the majority of our time on the island and it was perfect. Being off the main road the hotel was quiet all night even if we didn’t have a great view. You can check out Hoang Phuc on booking.com through the link below:
If you haven’t stayed in a hotel in Vietnam before be aware that they will want to keep your passport, I assume as a deposit, even if you’ve paid for the room in full. If you put up a bit of resistance they will generally let you keep your passport. Neither Monique nor I like to part with our passports as those are incredibly difficult to replace on the road!
Unique Lan Ha – Ha Long Bay Full Day Tour
Before heading to Cat Ba we had seen that you can go kayaking around the limestone karsts in Lan Ha Bay. This was high up on our list of things to do but most of the tours we had seen were about 8 hours, far too long for the short time we had on the island. Luckily, on the way to the island, our guide handed out pamphlets offering the Cat Ba Express day tour of Lan Ha Bay which included kayaking and made sure we would be back in time to catch the bus home. It was only VND 530,000 ($23) per person, so we signed up immediately. It was an incredible experience and we would do it again in a heartbeat! Here is what was on the itinerary:
07:30 – Pick up from the Cat Ba Express office to go the Béo Dock
08:00 – Cruise to Cái Béo fishing village, the largest traditional fishing village in north Vietnam. After the fishing village the boat reaches the heart of Lan Ha Bay where you cruise through the beautiful limestone karsts and the emerald green water.
09:30 – Stop at the Di San Floating House to visit a local fishing family and see their fish farm. See the family’s lucky grouper, that is about 13 years old and weighs around 100kg, called ‘Happy fish’. Every fishing family keeps a grouper for around 20-30 years for luck with their fishing.
10:00 – Anchor just off Ba Trái Đào beach to enjoy some swimming and have a chance to explore the small beach.
11:30 – Lunch is served with a variety of western and traditional Vietnamese dishes and seafood (We had 6 people at our table and we only finished about half the food we were served!).
12:30 – Kayaking to Ba Hầm Lake in Ha Long Bay. Explore the natural wonders by kayaking through caves into a hidden lagoon (We were the only tour group in this area and it was out of this world). This part of the tour is tide dependent.
14:00 – Cruise back to the harbour and enjoy the magnificent view of Lan Ha Bay for one last time.
15:00 – Back to the bus and then back home to Hanoi.
What’s included – The bus and boat rides, lunch, entrance fees, and kayaking. You have to pay for any extra drinks you have and it is a good idea to give a tip.
What to bring – Swimming clothes, sunscreen, a hat, and a waterproof camera.
What we didn’t get to do on Cat Ba
There is never enough time to do and see everything when you’re travelling. This trip in particular meant we had to be very picky in what we chose to do on Cat Ba island. I think we made the right choice but here is what we missed.
Canon fort is said to offer one of the best views in Vietnam. With a panoramic view over the limestone mountains, forests, and surrounding ocean. The tunnels and guns were first installed by the Japanese but were later used by the French and Vietnamese in later conflicts. There is a small museum where you can read up on the history of the fort.
Cat Ba National Park
The Cat Ba national park is home to the last 65 Langur monkeys, the most endangered mammal on the planet. There are numerous hiking trails in the park with the longest being 18km and it is recommended that you take a guide. If we visit Cat Ba again we will make a plan to find accommodation in the park so we can try out some of the hiking trails.
The hospital cave served as a bomb-proof hospital during the American war and a safe house for Vietcong leaders. The hospital was built between 1963 and 1965 with the assistance of the Chinese. It’s 3 stories high and is apparently quite a feat of engineering. It can be found about 10km out of Cat Ba town on the road to the entrance of the Cat Ba National Park.
From Cat Ba to Hanoi and home to Phu Ly
With our new work schedules at APAX we don’t have a full 2 day weekend anymore. We were lucky enough to get a Sunday off with Hung King Day and we knew we wanted to have a good adventure. We only really had 1 night so we looked for the best options from Hanoi to Cat Ba. If you are short on time and in, or around, Hanoi I would highly recommend looking into this. We were quite tired as we had 3 late nights and 2 very early mornings but it was well worth it! Hopefully we will get a chance to go back to Cat Ba one day but there is a lot more still to explore in Vietnam.
Blue skies and safe travels!
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