Located off the eastern coast of Vietnam, Cat Ba Island and the surrounding archipelago are an amazing piece of Vietnam’s picturesque landscape. Cat Ba Island, the largest and most populated island within the archipelago, is reachable by boat and bus from Hia Phong, Vietnam’s third largest city, or from Halong City. Reaching the island is rather easy and it’s well worth the visit.
From the Hanoi airport we took a bus to the Gia Lam bus station a few kms northeast of the center of the old quarter. The trip cost us 9,000 dong each and took about an hour. From there we walked about 5kms through town to the Luong Yen Bus station where we caught a bus to Hai Phong. The ride took about 3 hours and cost us 70,000 dong each. Once in Hai Phong we hopped on a pair of motorbikes, 30,000 each, for a ride to the port where the ferry would take us to Cat Ba. The ferry ride and the bus from the pier to Cat Ba town took about an hour and cost us 220,000 each. The boat ride to Cat Ba from Hai Phong was rather uneventful, though you do get to see some rather funny little fishing huts that are built up on stilts just outside of Hai Phong harbor.
It was a bit of a last minute decision for us to go as soon as we got into Hanoi, so we did it in a rather ad hoc style. With a little more research and planning there are numerous options for single purchase tickets that will get you from Hanoi to Cat Ba through either Hai Phong or Halong.
Cat Ba Island and the surrounding islands are a wondrous little place, so it is no surprise it has turned into something of a tourist haven. Cat Ba Town has numerous hotels, hostels, and restaurants. The sheer amount of skinny five to ten story buildings do create something of a blight on an otherwise lovely bay, but it does provide a wide range of price options for accommodation and eating. We stayed at Thu Ha hotel, a lovely little family run eight-story hotel near the center of town. It cost us 800,000 dong for four nights, after some haggling, and we got a lovely room with two double beds and wonderful ocean view. The room was lovely, the food delicious, and the service fantastic. As with everywhere in Asia, the beer is cheap and you can get it any where.
The island itself offers numerous things to do and see. There are three separate beaches close to town, each attached to a resort, but still accessible to the public. The beaches feature numerous chairs and loungers for relaxing, along with lovely sand and warm, calm, shallow water for swimming. You can also rent kayaks for exploring the surrounding waters. To top it all off, the sunsets are beautiful.
Renting a motorbike for a day is a wonderful way to see the island. It cost about 80,000 dong plus gas, another 80,000 for a full tank. One thing to be aware of however, is since there is no contract signed, if anything goes wrong it’s up to you and who you rent it from to decide who pays. We had a tire tube blow, it had been patched multiple times already and was obviously in need of replacement, and while we were able to negotiate fair terms, they did try to make us pay for the bike rental and the new tire tube. Beyond that little snafu the ride was beautiful and we were able to see many of the attractions we came to see. If you rent a bike make sure to take a drive through the picturesque mountain valleys, down to the coast road. The coast road runs along the rocky edge of the island, past numerous rice patties and sparkling bays, and through a multitude of quiet little farming and fishing villages back into Cat Ba Town. Despite the fact that much of the road is under construction, it was a fabulous ride through the more native parts of the island.
Our favorite part of the island was our hike through the mountainous national park. We did a four hour trek through the thick and beautiful jungle to the frog pond. Along the way we saw numerous forms of wild life, including insects, snakes, birds, and squirrels. Some of the most magical parts of the hike are the numerous flower banks that line the path, where butterflies of varying sizes and spectacular colors dance about you as you walk. There is also a shorter walk, which leads up to a viewpoint on one of the higher peaks. We didn’t go but from the looks of it the view would have been majestic. Entry into the park cost us 40,00 dong per person plus 5,000 to park the bike. Make sure you bring your bug spray, as there are numerous sections of the trail that are infested with mosquitos.
Just down the road from the national park is another of the many war-time relics scattered throughout Vietnam. The hospital cave is a rather ingenious little edifice built into a large limestone cave in the Cat Ba Mountains. It cost 15,000 per person for entry, and for a donation there is a guide who will take you through the complex and explain much of the history and function of the now largely empty bunker. While I wouldn’t make it a priority if you have other things to do, it is worth a visit if you have the time.
Depending on what you are into, there are numerous tours and other activities you can pay to partake in. Our shoestring budget doesn’t allow for such things usually, but if you have the money to spend you can go on any number of adventures such as kayaking, sailing, rock climbing, or tours that incorporate numerous activities into one or multiple day trips. The town features numerous bars and karaoke places if you have the desire for a night out with the backpackers. Many places also have free pool tables if you buy food or drinks.
For our return trip we purchased a oneway ticket on a slow boat going through Halong Bay to Halong City. It cost us 300,000 per person for the three ish hour ride through the archipelago. Many small, jagged, and jungle covered islands litter the bay between Cat Ba and Halong. The ride was a wondrously scenic journey through this absolutely unique waterscape. Hundreds of small sheer sided islands rise from the turquois water and you get to see a surprising number of floating fishing villages scattered throughout the vast maze of vegetation covered peaks. When going to Cat Ba, which you should, make sure at least one leg of your journey goes through Halong bay.
We thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. It is a lovely way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the much more crowded cities.