Cat Ba Island: Without a doubt, one of the most popular things to do in Vietnam is to take a Halong Bay cruise. And for good reason; The area is amazing. The views are incredible. You feel like you are in the middle of a hazy magical land far away from it all. Everyone is jealous when you share your photos. This is one of those special places that you will never forget.
Taking a cruise seems to be the most popular way to explore the area. You just need to show up and everything is taken care of for you. No need to plan anything! After my Halong Bay cruise, I stayed at Cat Ba Island and realized it was better suited for me. I prefer to do things independently and it is possible to explore Halong Bay using Cat Ba as a base.
About Cat Ba Island
It is the largest island in Halong Bay and is big enough to keep you busy for several days. If sustainable tourism is a concern, about half is Cat Ba National Park. Its ecosystem both on land and in water is a protected area.
Here you’ll find the same small fishing villages that nestle into the island’s jagged limestone shores and sandy beaches to welcome newcomers.
That said, getting to Cat Ba can be a bit overwhelming at first. It is the center of the area, with lots of cheap hotels and tourist agencies selling boat trips and other tours. The city can be crowded with tourists who are in a limited amount of time to make one trip and move on. Don’t let it get away from you.
It’s easy to unwind and explore more of the island and its waters. You can kayak the area and explore Halong Bay from a completely different perspective, navigating its crevices. The swimming and snorkeling here are incredible. There’s also great hiking and amazing seafood.
Things to do on Cat Ba Island
Hike in the National Park
Half of Cat Ba Island was designated a park in 1986, and in 2004 it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This ensures that the flora, fauna, and local wildlife will be protected, including an endangered monkey called the Cat Ba Langur.
Don’t expect to see anyone on your hike though. They are like the elusive wild sloths in Costa Rica; It is almost impossible to spot. There are only 60 left on the island.
Monkey view aside, there are great hikes for every fitness level with well-marked paths so travelers can explore freely. If you’re feeling adventurous and head torches then check out Trung Trang Cave, which houses impressive stalactites.
Looking for a big adventure? Trek through the park to the fishing village of Viet Hai, which recently developed an eco-tourism project. It’s a great way to support local people, environmental efforts, and help maintain traditional customs.
Snap the best view of Halong Bay
If you’re looking for that Instagram-perfect photo of Halong Bay, it’s not on a boat. Instead, head straight to Cannon Fort on the lush island hill.
It’s only a 30-minute walk from the city, but it may take longer because you’ll want to stop to see the tunnels, cannons, and guns from the various battles.
At the top, you will get a great view overlooking the bay. If you visit later in the day when the fishermen return you will see fishing boats sinking in the water in Halong Bay.
There is a cafe and a small museum at the top. Nothing different from the usual, but very welcome if you are in need of a soft drink.
Spend the day on a deserted beach
There are a few beaches on Cat Ba Island and which one you visit depends on how you want to spend your day. Tourist agencies sell day trips to the busiest beaches called Cat Bat Beaches 1, 2, and 3.
But if you’ve come on vacation to escape it all, you can find that too. There are so many great beaches out there that some are just a short drive, kayak, or walk away.
Visit the market
Take a short walk outside the town core to reach the local food market. This is not a tourist-trap souvenir market, but where locals on the island go daily to get their stuff.
Explore the Hospital Cave
You cannot visit the country without knowing about the Vietnam-American War. It’s tempting to see the other side if you grew up hearing about it through the American media.
Hospital Cave is literally a hospital inside a cave that was in use until 1975. It’s best to hire a guide in advance to take you, as the site doesn’t have much information to give you perspective with just the mannequins.
Eat seafood, fresh off the boat
If you want to eat pizza or pasta head to Nui Ngok Street, where everything is in English and international cuisine. But who goes to Vietnam to eat pizza?
Cat Ba is a fishermen’s island. They are known to house shrimp, clams, octopus, and a variety of fish. If you get off the main strip, there are plenty of local places where you’ll eat fresh Vietnamese seafood for a fraction of the price. The closer you get to the fishing ports, the better the food.
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- Cat ba island cruises (Link)
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