The Secrets of Cat Ba Island -
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The Secrets of Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba town

 

Cat Ba town

is downright hideous.

 

Cat Ba Town

 

The obtrusive signage

the assaulting neon

the cheap construction

the florescent mall lighting

 

Cat Ba Town

 

all

just

pains

me.

 

Cat Ba Town

 

But quietly concealed

behind the motos

the tour desks

and the monosodium glutamate

 

Cat Ba Island

 

is an island more beautiful

than I could have even imagined.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

An island filled with mystery.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

Three tiny beach coves

sit hidden in the hills

 

Cat Ba Island

 

with soft white sand

and warm jade water

 

cat ba island

 

where centuries past

three women of the Tran Dynasty

 

Cat Ba Island

 

washed up on each sandy shore.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

Through the rugged hills

beyond the developed town

 

Cat Ba Island

 

are limestone forests

and Jurassic Park jungles

 

Cat Ba Island

 

home to the golden headed langur

one of the most endangered species on Earth.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

Carved in the cliffs

are vacant caves

 

Cat Ba Island

 

that sheltered natives for centuries

until becoming Viet Cong enclaves.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

Beyond the land along the bay

is a community of people

 

Cat Ba Island

 

living on boats always mobile

they are one with the secrets of the sea.

 

Cat Ba Island

 

In every rock you find a creature

or a godlike face

 

Cat Ba Island

 

making you wonder

 

Cat Ba Island

 

what else

lies beneath

 

Cat Ba Island

 

this peculiar mystical place.

 

 

How to Get to Cat Ba Island

 

Most people reach Cat Ba Island by booking a bus/boat/bus combo from a tour office in Hanoi. Expect bumpy roads, lots of stopping, and incessant horns. One way costs about $10. The entire journey will last around 5 hours. Keep in mind you will have to get to the bus station which is outside of the Old Quarter. The taxis like to scam you, so it could cost as much as $10 in traffic.

 

I took an alternate route, which I highly recommend. Rather than book transportation to Cat Ba, I booked a tour of Ha Long Bay that would drop me off on Cat Ba Island in the evening. Since I planned to book a tour of Ha Long Bay anyway, this was a seriously economical solution. For $20 I was picked up from my hotel in Hanoi in a minibus then cruised through Ha Long Bay on an old Junk. The tour included kayaking in Ha Long Bay, a visit to a cave, lunch, and the transportation to Cat Ba town.

 

What to Do on Cat Ba Island

 

Explore the island by motorbike

 

The best way to truly see Cat Ba island is on the back of a motorbike. If you know how to ride one, lucky you! Otherwise find a companion or hire a driver on basically any street corner. The island is way too big and hilly to explore on foot or bicycle and there is so much to see.

 

Three temples dedicated to each of the fabled women that Cat Ba island is named after are up in the hills with stunning views. There is a lookout point at Fort Canon with lots of secret bunkers from the war. A butterfly farm, a zoo, and lots of local culture can also be observed by meandering through the hillside. My favorite place I went to on the island is the Hospital Cave near the National Park. If you go just before sunset the light is absolutely beautiful.

 

Laze at one of the beaches

 

The beaches on Cat Ba island are surprisingly gorgeous. However, they are tiny and I imagine during the high season are positively crammed with tourists. Two of the beaches are backed by huge resorts which were all but empty when I was there (October) despite the perfect weather. Cat Ba 2 is most popular with backpackers as it has only a few small bungalows.

 

Hike at the National Park

 

Much of Cat Ba island is protected, thankfully, by a stunning National Park. The park has exotic species of animals, including the highly endangered golden headed langur, however spotting animals is uncommon. Cat Ba Adventure Tours and Blue Swimmer offer overnight hikes. There are other short, well marked trails that you can explore on your own and admission is less than one dollar.

 

Tour Ha Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay

 

The main attraction for anyone coming to Cat Ba island is access to the stunning limestone karsts in Ha Long and Lan Ha Bay. There are plenty of tours leaving every day with lots of variety, but be aware many of these tours are very low quality. I paid $20 for an all day tour of Lan Ha Bay with a visit to a cave, lunch, and kayaking, which was a ton of fun. I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth aboard a ship, what could be so bad about that? Nothing, but be aware that the guide barely spoke English and did not fulfill many things passengers were promised. I was sold a kayaking tour, we only kayaked for one hour with no guide. Another couple was sold a trip to Monkey Island, we never went there. Everyone was told we would stop at a remote beach. He took us to one covered by water in high tide. Blue Swimmer and Cat Ba Adventure Tours are said to have excellent, albeit more expensive, options.

 

Rock climbing

 

Cat Ba Adventure Tours leads rock climbing expeditions which are said to be amazing. Given the scenery I can only imagine.

 

Kayak around the island

 

It is possible to rent kayaks for the day ($12) from Blue Swimmer and wander on your own. I wish I had done this perhaps instead of my tour to Lan Ha Bay to have a more authentic experience exploring the fish farms and local boats.

 

Where to Stay on Cat Ba Island

 

Coming home to Cat Ba town after an amazing day in the jungle or on the bay can be a serious let down. Really, the town has no charm. Ask anyone… and it’s only going to get worse. They have big plans to develop a huge resort, casino, and golf course on the South end of the island. A real shame if you ask me.

 

Ideally stay on the beach, outside of town in the jungle, or onboard a boat. If you do want a truly economical choice, you can usually negotiate a double room in town for $8 with air conditioning, a sea view, and a private bathroom.

 

Cat Ba Eco Lodge

$50 per night for a double room

In the gorgeous hills this eco lodge is the perfect relaxing retreat. They have an onsite restaurant, beautiful rooms with hot water showers, and will arrange tours for you.

 

Monkey Island

$60 for a double room

Stay at your own private paradise at Monkey Island. The resort has a restaurant, bar, arranges activities, and offers all inclusive packages.

 

Cat Ba Beach Resort

Beachfront bungalows on the most laid back beach on Cat Ba Island: Cat Ba 2. They are beautifully done and there is an onsite restaurant and bar.

 

What to Eat on Cat Ba Island

 

The food on Cat Ba Island does not hold a candle to the cuisine in Hanoi. Don’t expect much authenticity here. Most menus are tailored to Western and Chinese tourists.

 

Bamboo

$2-$10 for dishes

A good assortment of seafood and vegetarian dishes. The spring rolls here are among the best I had on the island. The hot pots also looked excellent.

 

Mr Zoom

$2-10 for dishes

The delicious seafood hot pot for $10 feeds four people. They also offer a free beer and a free vegetarian appetizer plate on some nights. The service is very friendly.

 

Fruit from the market

Barter

At the end of the road on the harbor, turn right and you’ll see an alley with a huge market. Culturally it’s a great experience and you will see a huge variety of fresh seafood, some still alive, lots of fruit, and fresh young coconuts.


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Comments

  1. What a fascinating place, full of contradictions and legends. Thanks for a balanced view and the detailed recommendations. Can’t wait to see the next post!

  2. I have recently become a blogger and have fallen in love with your adventure. Unlike you, I am not brave enough to do what you do. This article has just (almost) sealed my next vacation spot; Cat Ba Island. I love how you can make anything beautiful.

    • This American Girl Says: October 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      Thank you Casi :) It’s not easy but you can totally do it. I’d recommend Costa Rica as a place to get your feet wet.

  3. Maybe one of those Dragons will emerge and eat up all those concrete eye sores in Cat Ba town. I mean it could happen…

  4. Great info, thanks! We’re actually following your advice to do the $20 cruise to Cat Ba and then see from there. Sounds like a good deal. Enjoy your travels!

  5. Phuong Phuong restaurant in cat ba island
    http://www.facebook.com/annazenden09
    We went to this restaurant both nights we were in Cat Ba. The owners, a family of Father, Mother, and Daughter are the sweetest. Welcoming, not pushy and make great suggestions of how to cook the seafood.
    Their prices are very reasonable per kilo, the cheapest we found along the strip of restaurants.
    Try the Mantis shrimp tempura, and tiger prawns in sweet chili garlic sauce.
    Steamed claims with lemongrass and ginger and the steamed claims in butter and garlic. Amazing.

  6. […] on the back of a motorbike through the national park on Cat Ba Island, climbing into secret caves used by the Viet Cong, and swimming in crystal water surrounded by […]

  7. Our first day in Cat Ba Town and we’re in love. I don’t find the town to look much different than many places in Hanoi. First impression after a very early morning start after a long night, train/boat/bus here was a bit underwhelmed. However, after resting up a bit and meeting Mr. Zoom, eating a whole fish that was presented to us flopping in a basket then perfectly cooked, then drinks at The Rose Bar tended by owner Tom who has the most genuine smile and great drink specials, we are thoroughly impressed and in love with the locals and their businesses.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 6, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      Yay, glad you love it! Just wait until you ride outside towards the national park. It is stunning and sooooo full of magic!!

  8. Also, our hotel Cat Ba Palace for $18/night with a King size bed, couch, desk, balcony and marble shower is a luxe room and the reception people couldn’t be sweeter.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 6, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      Great to hear! Ya when we were there the town was basically empty and I got my own super clean, modern room for $8 per night, ridiculous!

  9. in the What to Eat on Cat Ba Island
    Could you post my restaurant information ?
    This is information.
    Phuong Phuong restaurant
    $2-10 for dishes
    and then Could you write to recommend from my restaurant ?
    Thanks !

  10. Thank you for this lovely post. We are headed to Cat Ba on Sunday. We plan to stay a week or so and soak it all in. Thanks for the tips!

  11. Hello! Your blog made me decide to go to Cat Ba Island! Would you please tell me the Ha Long Bay tour that you took from Hanoi? Also how did you go back to Hanoi from Cat ba? Thanks!

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 16, 2014 at 7:52 pm

      Unfortunately I’m not sure the name of the specific boat I took to Cat Ba on the tour, I simply walked into a tour office and requested a ticket that would drop me in Cat Ba island at the end. For my return I booked the bus-boat option through my hotel. Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

      • Thank you for your reply! I wonder if the Ha Long bay tour from Cat ba will take me to places like the tour from Ha noi. I don’t want to miss the typical Ha Long scenery.

        • Camille Willemain Says: May 17, 2014 at 7:36 am

          In my experience the trip took me to all the standard places on the one day one night tour of Ha Long Bay :) We went into the famous cave, kayaked, and saw tons of gorgeous scenery.

  12. Here is how we got there and back (underneath all the blah blah blah about what we did).

    http://slowlyglobal.blogspot.com/2014/04/every-day-is-friday-five-our-cat-ba.html

    Hope it’s helpful! Cat Ba Island was great.

  13. Thank for your post. It’s so good for us in Cat Ba. We are a tour agent in Cat Ba island and would like to ask you to use your writing for our website. (http://tourincatba.com/) is it possible?
    Thank you in advance.
    Mr Lo

  14. Hi Camille, I am loving reading about your travel adventures. I did pretty much the same places when I visited South East Asia and reading this reminds me of all the good times :) When we visited Cat Ba we stayed with Mr Zoom who was amazing! Great restaurant, great accommodation and he also booked our boat tour for us. There were 6 of us travelling together and so we had the big boat to ourselves and it didn’t disappoint, we went everywhere that was mentioned above and what a fantastic day, will never forget it! I hope you are still enjoying your travels and adventures as I am (though slightly more settled then I would prefer :)) Take care out there

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 28, 2015 at 1:01 pm

      Awesome! I’m now in Scandinavia, a totally different world, but I’m hoping to go back to Southeast Asia soon. I love it there so much!

  15. How do I go about booking the 1 day tour of Ha Long Bay that drops you off in the Cat Ba island for $20? I’ve been searching online and can’t find that particular tour.

    Thank you!
    Kristy

    • Camille Willemain Says: June 24, 2015 at 2:02 pm

      Hey Kristy, I just went into one of the many tour offices in Hanoi the day before and asked about it :) That’s my best advice. Since you’re not sleeping on the boat it doesn’t matter as much the quality of the boat or the tour, so you should be fine booking last minute. Let me know how it goes!

  16. I am interested in booking a tour of Ha Long bay that drops off at Cat Ba island.

    Do you have information of the company you booked through? Sounds great.

    jan

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 24, 2016 at 11:41 am

      I believe you can just go to any of the tour offices in Hanoi and ask about it, that’s what I did, good luck! xo

  17. Hello! Your trip sounds fab 😄 I’m heading up to Hanoi tomorrow and I like the idea of getting the Halong Bay boat tour to Cat Ba, it makes a lot of economical sense! Do you recall who you went with? I’m struggling to find anything online for one day trips that offer this and I’m near pulling my hair out (not really, but still!). Any info you can give would be awesome 😄 plus, did you then get the normal boat/bus combo back to Hanoi?

    Thanks in advance

    • Camille Willemain Says: July 17, 2016 at 12:16 am

      I just popped in at one of the tour agencies in Hanoi and asked them, so I really don’t remember the name of the company. It was 3 years ago. And yes I got the normal bus/boat combo back. You are so welcome and have a beautiful trip!

  18. EZGI OZLEN SARACOGLU Says: December 17, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    Hello I wonder how u arranged the tour for 20 usd ? And how many days u suggest to stay in Cat Ba ?