Within the Ha Long Bay area, the Cat Ba Archipelago consists of 367 islands that are spread over an area of 260 sq km (100 sq mi). The largest island in the archipelago and Ha Long Bay is called Cat Ba (Cát Bà). Home to a national park and decent-sized town, Cat Ba has become the top island destination for tourists in Ha Long Bay and Hai Phong.
Tourism is also drawn from Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, as many international travelers will make their way to the coast to see the world-famous Ha Long Bay. Spread along the shoreline of Cat Ba Island are many hotels, resorts, restaurants, and shops that cater to national and international tourists. Moving inward from the shore, Cat Ba National Park sits at the heart of the island.
With incredibly biodiverse habitats, stunning tropical landscapes, and plenty of tourist infrastructure, Cat Ba Island has become a major vacation destination for Northern Vietnam as it attracts millions of international tourists each year.
Largest Island in Ha Long Bay
In the area around Cat Ba Island, there are three primary bays called Ha Long, Lan Ha, and Bai Tu Long. Cat Ba Island is technically a part of Lan Ha Bay, which is in the southern part of the greater Ha Long Bay area. Being the largest island in the area, Cat Ba has an area of 285 sq km (110 sq mi).
Extensive development of the island has made it easier for tourists to visit the town and national park. Unlike the majority of the islands in the greater Ha Long Bay area, which are uninhabited, Cat Ba has plenty of infrastructures like roads, dams, and daily supply deliveries from the mainland.
Often called the “adventure-tourism capital of Vietnam”, activities on Cat Ba Island are focused on nature as tourists explore the area’s stunning scenery. To get to Cat Ba, travelers will have to take a ferry from either Ha Long City or Hai Phong. Ha Long City is just over 2 hours by road from Hanoi, while Hai Phong is slightly closer with the drive taking about 2 hours.
For travelers who are in a time crunch, the most direct way to get to Cat Ba Island is to take the ferry from Hai Phong. Speed boats and ferries will take travelers from the Binh Pier in Hai Phong City to the island. The journey takes 1 hour for speed boats and up to 2 hours for ferries.
Travelers in Ha Long City will have to head to the Tuan Chau Harbour to get a ferry ride, which will take about 1-1.5 hours. From both Hai Phong and Ha Long City, there are multiple ferries that make the trip from the mainland to Cat Ba Island each day. The ferries run year-round, although travelers should check the schedule as the time and frequency change depending on the season.
More than 6,000 years ago, Cat Ba Island was originally inhabited by the Cai Beo people. An ancient civilization, the Cai Beo survived by fishing in the bay and archipelago. Continuously inhabiting the area, Cai Beo fishing villages still exist in the Ha Long Bay area. Thousands of years later, during Vietnam’s Tran Dynasty, Cat Ba Island was known as Cac Ba.
However, the name was changed slightly to become Cat Ba with the common translation as “Women’s Island”. Local legends state that the bodies of the three women washed up on various beaches of Cat Ba Island and were discovered by the local fishermen. To honor the women, the locals built three temples and since then the island has been known as Cat Ba.
In more recent history, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, Cat Ba Island served as a strategic position for French and American forces during the days of occupation and war. Historical sites that still remain on the island include the Hospital Cave and Cannon Fort, which have been turned into tourist attractions.
After the end of the Vietnam War, recognition of Cat Ba Island’s biodiversity meant that the area was protected by local laws, and a national park was established in 1986. By 2004, UNESCO recognized Cat Ba as a World Heritage Site and in 2006, a final expansion of the area’s boundaries provided further protection to the land and water space around the island.
- In 2018, an estimated 2.5 million tourists visited Cat Ba Island.
- There are 1,561 flora and 279 fauna species found on Cat Ba Island.
- One of the most endangered primate species in the world, the Cat Ba langur, is endemic (can only be found) to the island.
There are numerous adventures awaiting tourists on Cat Ba Island. For many travelers, planning an itinerary is difficult because there is so much to see and do. While most of the attractions on Cat Ba Island are nature-based, there are a few sites like the Hospital Cave and Viet Hai Fishing Village that focus on the area’s history and culture.
Cat Ba National Park
The island’s main attraction is Cat Ba National Park. Originally popular amongst foreign and Chinese tourists in the 1990s, the national park has seen an influx of international travelers in recent years. Drawn in by the rugged terrain and dense rainforests, Cat Ba National Park has plenty of attractions including Ngu Lam Mountain, Trung Trang Cave, and Frog Lake.
Travelers in the national park can go solo or hire a guide to explore this biodiverse landscape. Hiking is the most popular way to see Cat Ba National Park and there are many well-marked trails leading adventurers through the jungle. Popular water-based activities include cruises, kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming.
Joining a tour group is the easiest way to enjoy the national park by boat as many operators will provide a full itinerary and meal options to guests.
Around Cat Ba Town there are three beaches. Simply called 1, 2, and 3, these sandy spots are perfect for walking, swimming, and sunbathing. Not lined up in linear order, Beaches 1 and 3 are connected by a small pathway, meanwhile, Beach 2 is quieter and well-known for being a safe swimming spot.
All three of the beaches are developed with hotels and resorts, so tourists won’t be far away from amenities and services. Many of the hotels and resorts will also offer a day pass to use their facilities like lounges or outdoor pools.
The Hospital Cave is a historic site that dates back to the days of the Vietnam War. In use until 1975, the Hospital Cave was used to treat wounded soldiers. Built entirely underground, the complex is surprisingly large with 3 stories, a swimming pool, and a cinema. The cave has been opened to tourists with mannequins installed to simulate how rooms looked when they were in use.
Unfortunately, there is no information provided, so it’s highly recommended that tourists hire a local guide in town. Additionally, there is no natural light inside the Hospital Cave, which adds to the damp and dark atmosphere.
Off of Cat Ba Island and in Lan Ha Bay, Monkey Island is another popular destination amongst tourists. Called Cat Dua by the locals, this island is home to wild monkeys that thrive in the area’s jungles. Tourists can spot the monkeys as they take a hike to the peak of the island, where an amazing view of Lan Ha Bay awaits.
The climb to the top of the island is quite steep, so tourists should be prepared and wear proper footwear. Many tour companies will include Monkey Island in their itineraries, but if it isn’t listed as a stop along the way, travelers can hire a local guide to take them there instead.
With the increase in tourism, the island’s monkeys have learned to scavenge through human food. Tourists are discouraged from feeding the monkeys and asked to watch their surroundings as they can become aggressive. It’s best to keep your distance from the animals as a safety precaution.
Viet Hai Fishing Village
To learn more about the local and ancient culture, tourists should visit or book a homestay at the Viet Hai Fishing Village. Located outside of Cat Ba Town, this village is home to descendants of the Cai Beo people and the Viet-Chinese minority. In the village, tourists can learn more about the traditional fishing techniques and lifestyle of the indigenous people.
A few families have become hosts for travelers and they offer homestay options. Travelers can also visit the village for the day and share a meal with the locals. The village is quite remote and the only way to reach Viet Hai by land is by taking a 4-hour hike through Cat Ba National Park. The faster and much more popular way to get to the village is by taking a boat to the Viet Hai Pier.
Situated along the beachfront and shoreline of Cat Ba Island are dozens of hotels and resorts. Ranging from affordable to luxurious, travelers will have plenty of options to choose from. A few of the best-rated accommodations on Cat Ba are the Hotel Perle d’Orient Cat Ba, Cannon Fort Cat Ba Hotel, Mountain Pearl, and the Blue Lagoon Cat Ba.
Hotel Perle d’Orient Cat Ba – One of the best beachfront resorts is the Hotel Perle d’Orient Cat Ba. Located on Beach 3, this resort offers luxurious facilities, rooms, and services to its guests. On-site, guests can access a fitness center, garden, terrace, outdoor swimming pool, beach access, and bar.
Every morning, a buffet and à la carte breakfast are served. Guest rooms are air-conditioned and each room has a seating area. Some of the larger suites have a balcony with amazing sea views. Additionally, all rooms have a private bathroom, TV, desk, and kettle
Cannon Fort Cat Ba Hotel – Close to the city center and a short walk away from Beach 2 is the Cannon Fort Cat Ba Hotel. Provided in all the guest rooms are AC, a TV, a seating area, a private bathroom, and linens. Family rooms are also available.
At the hotel, guests can enjoy the property’s restaurant, lounge, free Wi-Fi, room service, and tours. The front desk has English-speaking staff that can assist guests with hiring a local guide or transportation.
Mountain Pearl – A 9-minute walk away from Beach 2, the Mountain Pearl is a beachfront hotel that is well-known for being family-friendly. Offering babysitting services and family rooms, travelers can rest assured that their children will sleep soundly at the Mountain Pearl.
Amenities at the hotel include a 24-hour front desk, free Wi-Fi, and a buffet breakfast. The staff has been rated as very kind and have English-speaking members. At the front desk, guests can be assisted with arranging transportation or tours.
Blue Lagoon Cat Ba – Outside of town, the Blue Lagoon Cat Ba is a remote hotel that is a 10-minute walk away from Tung Thu Beach. Described as “quiet and safe”, this hotel has a gorgeous property with friendly owners and a beautiful garden. All the rooms at the hotel have a garden view and they come with a private bathroom and wardrobe.
Boasting lake and terrace views, linens and towels are given to all guests. Breakfast is provided to guests, as well as room service options. On-site, guests can enjoy the garden or hot tub, as well as use the front desk to arrange for off-site activities like tours of the bay.
In the center of Cat Ba Town, there are dozens of restaurants in addition to the hotels and resorts. With a wide range of options, tourists can check out the small cafes, fine dining, and delicious food stalls. Ingredients are typically sourced locally or from the mainland. Common dishes include Vietnamese favorites like pho and grilled fish as well as international cuisines like pizza and pasta.
For Vietnamese delights, the best place to eat is the Yummy Cat Ba. Reasonably priced and with vegetarian options, this restaurant remains one of the highest on the island. Serving a fusion of Vietnamese and international cuisine, the Green Mango Cat Ba is a laid-back establishment where travelers can enjoy happy hour.
Some of the best food on the menu includes pizza, pasta, green curry, and milkshakes. Family-run and loved by travelers, the My Way Cafe sits right on the main street of Cat Ba. Options on the menu include Western and Vietnamese dishes like fried rice, pasta, veggie burgers, and smoothie bowls. Vegan dishes can also be made to order.
Getting around Cat Ba Island isn’t difficult as travelers will have the option of hiring a taxi, tour services, motorbike rentals, bicycle rentals, or simply powering around on their own two feet. Taxis are common throughout the town and many can be hired to take tourists to other parts of the island. Rates are affordable and most taxis will work well into the night.
Tourists who are part of a tour probably won’t have to worry about transportation as tour companies will make sure that their guests get to where they need to go. Motorbike and bicycle rentals on Cat Ba Island are another way. Motorbikes are a great way to explore more of the island, like Cat Ba National Park, as well as Beaches 1, 2, and 3.
Bicycle rentals are great for those who are staying closer to town. Finally, most of Cat Ba Town can be visited on foot. Rentals aren’t required and for the most part, the big attractions like the beaches and main street are within a 15-minute walk of each other.
At Cat Ba Island there is a wet and dry season. The wet season begins in May and ends in October. During these months, the rains are heavy and the climate is hot and humid. Although the rain may seem like a downside, many people will still visit Cat Ba Island to enjoy the beaches during the hot weather.
From November to April, the dry season brings cooler weather and less rain to Cat Ba Island. For tourists who want to hike and enjoy the outdoor activities, the dry season is the best time to visit Cat Ba Island. More often than not, the dry season is also less crowded than the wet season.
A beautiful island with plenty of attractions to keep you busy for days, Cat Ba is a must-see destination in Northern Vietnam. A paradise on the water, coupling a trip to Ha Long will truly make visiting an unforgettable memory for years to come.
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