Cat Ba is the largest island of the archipelago that includes Ha Long, Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long bays. It has rugged cliffs of limestone karst, tropical limestone forest and some beautiful beaches. About 50% of the island is a national park.
The name means women’s island and comes from a legend where 3 women of the Tran dynasty were killed and their bodies floated away and each washed up on a different beach in Cat Ba. The legend gave way to the name of the island.
The National Park
The national park on Cat Ba has 1,561 species of flora, and 279 species of fauna, including 11 breeds of frog, 20 amphibious reptiles, 160 bird species and 53 different mammal species, including the Cat Ba langur. This critically endangered species is found only on Cat Ba and there are estimated to be about 70 left. Other mammals to look out for are civets and giant oriental squirrels, as well as other primate species.
The national park includes the marine environment to offer protection and conservation for this delicate habitat as well. The habitat contains 900 sea fish, 7 types of sea snake, 4 turtle species, 178 coral species and 21 seaweed species. This was the first national park on Vietnam to cover marine areas and includes coral reef, mangrove, sea grass beds and willow swamp forest.
The path up to the hospital cave
Also the island has some history. There is archaeological evidence that it has been inhabited from 6,000 years. More recently it is Chino/Viet fishermen that inhabited the island. It held importance during the French and American wars. During the war with the USA there was a large cave used as a hospital (hospital cave). It was also used for hiding people and it is now a tourist attraction. The island had strategic importance due to its height as it was used to spot approaching bombing raids coming to Haiphong and Hanoi. These war remnants can also be seen if you visit cannon fort on the island. Here you can see old bunkers and helipads (as well as a magnificent view)! At the collapse of Viet/Chino relations in 1979, after the start of the third Indochina war, about 30,000 Chinese heritage fisherman were evicted from the island.
The view from the cafe at Cannon fort
Caves and Beaches
Apart from Hospital cave there are other caves you can visit such as Trung Trang cave, Minh Chau cave, ma cave and da hoa cave. It is the limestone bedrock of the island which give the dramatic landscape and also creates a lot of caves. This is also present throughout the Ha Long bay archipelago. You may need your own form of transport to get around the island to see these. Please note that all caves have an admission fee, usually about 40,000 VND (US$2)
A pretend ward in hospital cave
Close to Cat Ba town are the three Cat Co beaches. These are lovely yellow sand beaches, good for swimming and relaxing. You are also able to rent rubber rings, SUP (Stand Up Paddleboards) and kayaks from Cat Co 2. Bizarrely the order is cat co 2, then 1, then 3 when going from north to south. These are all a 15-20 minute walk from Cat Ba town.
Occasionally there is snorkelling to be had from the beaches. Though usually the famous emerald green waters means that visibility is quite poor. Occasionally it is crystal clear, though not often (so cross your fingers and hope for the best).
For all water sports we suggest that you do not stray too far from the beaches or where you launched from, as there are strong currents in some of the channels between the 1600+ islands, especially at spring tides. If you want to venture further afar, we suggest you do an organised tour for kayaking. See the activities section below.
For another beach, there is one just in front of Woodstock beach camp. You can also find a few other beaches dotted around the island though the Cat Co trilogy are generally the best. They are generally the cleanest too, as they are maintained.
The water temperature varies from a cool 19°C (67°F) in January and February to over 30°C (87°F +) in July. Air temperature varies from 17°C (63°F) in the winter to 29°C in June, July & August (84°F) Rainfall is from 20mm average for January to 265 mm of rain in August, with the wettest months being the warmest, May to September.
A popular way for you to get around Cat Ba island is to hire a motorbike. You can rent automatics, semi-automatics or manuals from just about everywhere in Cat Ba town. There are many places on the roadside that offer petrol (gas) and also puncture repair, should you need it. There are also a couple of petrol stations, one by the harbour and one on the more inland part of town.
Cat Co 1 beach
Our friends at Asia Outdoors organise kayaking trips and combined kayak and climbing trips and they have international safety standards. Their focus for climbing is on 3 crags on Cat Ba Island and also 3 crags on small islands out in Lan Ha Bay (the part of the archipelago directly east of Cat Ba Island). They also offer Yoga and other activities, such as trekking on the island. Asia Outdoors frequently organise weekend yoga retreats as well, which are well attended so look out for these (and book early to avoid disappointment). Please note that there is another climbing provider offering services on Cat Ba, but they have been instructed to stop their operation by the national government (due to safety reasons, and sub standard equipment) but continue to offer climbing illegally. Asia Outdoors is the only legal climbing provider on Cat Ba, so safety first people!
There are also other companies offering tours on the island, such as boat tours, kayak tours, overnight boat tours, hiking and wildlife tours and speedboat tours. You can find these operators in Cat Ba town.
You can book the one day boat tours and all the Asia Outdoors activities with See You at Lily’s Hostel and Travel.
Deep water solo (climbing over water with no ropes, when the tide is right)!
There are an ever growing number of hotel and hostels in Cat Ba town (there are big development plans tabled for the island, so there is some prospective growth), so there is plenty to choose from. Out of season these can actually have quite big discounted rates, but high season they can be expensive. August is a particularly busy time as it is holiday time for the Vietnamese. Try to book accommodation in advance for this period.
Our recommendation for accommodation in Cat ba town are Le Pont, which has dorms and bungalows. Also Cat Ba Beach resort, which is right on Cat Co 2 beach. In the centre of town along the main strip (called 1 April street, “1 thang 4”) is Full Moon Party hostel, that has a young vibe and dorms as well as privates. Also Green Cat Ba Hostel has cheap dorm accommodation. Online websites will give you the latest on what hotels are available, well rated and good value.
As previously mentioned there is Woodstock beach camp. This chilled out place offers food and drinks, camping, dorms and rooms. It is a little way out of Cat Ba town, but you can either arrange transport from town or get your bus to the island to drop you off nearby and then you walk.
There is also a few out of town and quiet places to stay at, namely Cat Ba Ecolodge and hospital cave hostel.
In the upper end of accommodation, aside from the 5 star hostel in and around Cat Ba town, there are various islands with private resorts in Lan Ha Bay, though they cater mostly to Ha Long bay tour boats when people are choosing to spend the second night on an island.
The back of Cat Ba town (new hotels being built), seen from the road heading to cannon fort
Food and Nightlife
Cat Ba town is where most of the nightlife is. It is also where there are the most food options (not as many as Hanoi, but Vietnam’s capital is probably a world leader for food). There are bakeries, and many restaurants. Food options range from the Vietnam wide Banh My stalls and Xoi (sticky rice) sellers, to seafood hot pot and fish dishes. You can go to the harbour (from about 06.30am) to see fresh fish being offloaded from the small fishing boats. You can even buy some fresh fish and seafood, though make sure that you have somewhere to cook it first (or if your hostel or hotel offer this as a service for a fee). One really nice restaurant we like is on the side of the marina and called Vietnam’s Soul Food. It is a small family run place with good home cooking.
Catch of the day
Old and the new, traditional fishing, floating houses and the hotels of Cat Ba town in the background
Loading and delivering the catch, 6.30am at the harbour in Cat Ba town
Oasis bar is a very popular and fun place for drinks. Also Full Moon party hostel has a busy bar, as does the noble house in it’s ‘Good Bar’. You an find all these on 1 Thang 4 street along the seafront.
There is a small night market in Cat Ba Town, selling mostly the usual SE Asia stuff, but some nice things made with oyster shell handles, such as combs, brushes, salad servers etc. Note that most fruits are imported to the island and so carry a higher price tag than everywhere else in Vietnam.
Getting to Cat Ba
Cat Ba is a 4 hour journey from Hanoi. See you at Lily’s can organise pickup from our hostel (or anywhere in the old quarter) to Cat Ba town. Departure times are at 07:30, 10:30 and 14:00. Return buses from Cat Ba to Hanoi are at 09:00, 12:30 and 15:30. Cost is $10-12 one way (correct at time of publishing). Though do always check with us to find out if there are special discount offers!
You also have an option to travel from Cat Ba at 9am and go to Ninh Binh, for those of you who want to head south and not return to Hanoi.
To sort out your trip you can contact us via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), facebook (https://www.facebook.com/seeyouatlilys/), WhatsApp/phone (+84 120 3062 715), or pop into the hostel at 16 Ngo Huyen street, near Hanoi cathedral.
The bus to Cat Ba
Weather and Temperatures