Our trip through Vietnam had been quite tiring and overwhelming. The cities are huge, bustling, and crowded. The air is smoggy and hard to breathe. We were getting quite ready to cut our stay within Vietnam short of our 3 month Visa, but we still had a few things we wanted to check out. Ha Long Bay was on our to-do list, so we decided that we would do that, then figure out what we wanted to do after that.
Upon a little research, Briana found a much better way to experience Ha Long. Typically, most people will shuttle onto a junk for 2 or 3 days and explore the bay this way while paying upwards of $150 per person. What Briana managed to find, was Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island in Ha Long Bay, residing in the southwestern edge of the bay, and has several small towns on the island. Upon checking it out, we realized that we could spend over a week on the island and still take a boat trip out from the island – for a cheaper price than the standard Ha Long excursion.
With a little work, we managed to figure out the journey to the island. It required several buses, and a ferry to get there, as no planes service the island.
Upon arriving to the island, you immediately feel like you’re visiting Jurassic Park. Tall limestone karst cliffs rise from the sea, and dense, lush jungle clings to every surface. Swifts zip across the sky. We came in the off-season, at the end of February, and it was quite chilly upon arrival with a mist obscuring parts of the island – adding to the mystique.
The island has a few main settlements: Cat Ba Town, on the southern tip of the island; Viet Hai Village on the eastern tip of the island, accessible by boat; and the floating village, off the eastern coast of the island. Along the few roads that cross the island, you can find small homesteads and communities. Some of the larger valleys have rice paddies and small farms.
But all in all, the island remains a forgotten paradise. Although there is some tourism, the crowds haven’t really hit Cat Ba yet – but we recommend checking out the island soon, it’s bound to be found out sooner or later. Coming in the off-season, there were very few people here, and it wasn’t exactly beach weather. The water is pretty cool, and it’s overcast a lot, but it’s actually really good for exploring the island. During the summer, it can get sweltering and hiking could be miserable. As well, the waters in the bay can get very rough during the summer, while the off-season has very calm waters making for a more enjoyable tour of the bay.
A majority of Cat Ba Island remains undeveloped jungle and wilderness. It’s really not surprising either. Once you start to explore the island, you realize just how easy it is for the island to remain remote – steep, jagged, limestone karst mountains raise from floor throughout. It’s truly a scene that will send you back a few million years.
Most of the island in fact, is a part of Cat Ba National Park, with some communities living within the park itself. Established in 1986, the park covers 263 square kilometers, with 173 being land, and 90 of inshore water. The park is a special-use forest, as one of the world’s biosphere reserves. The park is home to 282 species of animal, comprising of 32 mammals, 78 birds, 20 reptiles, and 11 amphibians. The most famous of these is the Golden Langur, which is highly endangered with only about 60 individuals left in the world. The likelihood of running across one of these though is highly unlikely. The park is made up of three zones: a visitor zone, a research zone, and an off-limits zone. Most people visiting will only be able to go through the visitor zones, which encompass the hiking trails, zoo, and various other locations throughout such as the frog pond or the jungle village. The research zone can be accessed by rangers, researchers and some students, and it is here that park officials conduct preservation experiments and probe the jungle for more information. The off-limits zone, which is located in the north-east of the island, and very difficult to attempt to reach, is off-limits to everyone and only accessed by officials and researchers in a strictly observational setting. These protocols are established to help ensure the integrity of the forest and the park. Entering the park will cost 40,000 Dong per person, and parking (if you drove) will cost an additional 5,000. You can hire a guide as well for some excursions (recommended for some) but it is not necessary.
There is plenty to do within Cat Ba National Park and you could easily make a week of it if you so desired. Some of the most notable items you can participate in are: Specimen House, the zoo, Trung Trang Cave, Butterfly Valley, Frog Pond, Cang Viet Hai Trail, Hospital Cave, Waterfall Sunset Trail, and Lookout Tower Trail. While we did not do most of these, I can give a little explanation to them.
Specimen House: Almost immediately upon entering the park from it’s headquarters, there is a large two storied building to your left. Within the house are restrooms for you to use as well as several rooms displaying preserved or stuffed animals endemic to Vietnam. The specimen house seems to have seen better days, it is a bit in disrepair, and there are no signs in English. However, it is still worth a look for some interesting views.
The Zoo: There is a zoo at the end of a 30 minute trail. We began our way down it at one point, but as the day was getting on, we decided to turn back. Near the entrance to the trail however is a cage for rehabilitating monkeys as well as a large field for deer.
Trung Trang Cave: This cave you will actually come across the entrance to on the main road before you make it to the park headquarters if you are coming from Cat Ba town. However, the gates are locked and you will need to check with a ranger at the gate to get them to open it for you. Sometimes the cave is flooded or may need to be closed for various reasons. It’s recommended that you bring a flashlight as well.
Butterfly Valley Trail: This trail leads to superb rock climbing on the island. Prices vary, but you can rent the equipment from park officials at the cliffs and they will assist you in climbing the difficult faces. We did not do this, but overheard at dinner from someone that did that the gear is in top shape, and they know what they are doing. The trail is a 3 hour hike from the park headquarters. You can ride a bike down the trail as well, but as of this moment in time, construction is taking place on the road where you would normally access it via this route, thus it is not really possible to go this route. It is recommended to just organize a tour if you want to do this.
Frog Pond: Normally this pond is accessed via the Cang Viet Hai Trail, but for those who do not wish to partake in such a strenuous hike, there is an access road that looks like it can be mostly ridden by motorbike. The road is just beyond the headquarters on your right.
Cang Viet Hai Trail: This is the shining jewel of the hikes available on Cat Ba, but it is very difficult. It is 18km and climbs up and down the mountains multiple times. It is recommended that you take a guide, but it is possible to go it alone. With a guide, you begin at 8am and hike up to Frog Pond and enjoy the many frogs there. You will then continue on until you reach a native village deep within the jungle. Here you break and eat lunch. If you are going alone, you may rent a bed for the night at their bungalow (a mattress on a wooden deck with a mosquito net). After lunch you will proceed on until you reach the ocean on eastern tip of the island. There is a small town here, accessed on via boat. The guide will arrange for a boat back to Cat Ba town from there. If you go alone, it is difficult to get a boat back and if you do they are likely to over charge you, so you’ll most likely be hiking the whole way back to the park headquarters.
Hospital Cave: I’ve already covered Hospital Cave in another post, but you can access the cave via a hiking route from the park headquarters. The hike takes around a half day to get there and back at a length of 4 km. Or you can take our route and just stop off on the side of the road.
Waterfall Sunset Trail: This trail can be accessed from the park headquarters and makes a steep 40 min climb up and down each. The trail is one of the shorter ones you can take, but will apparently give you a great view of some select waterfalls.
Lookout Tower Trail: This is the trail that we took, and we highly recommend it. For a more detailed look at this trail just go to the link here. This trail is very steep, and moderately difficult trail. You should allot yourself about 3 – 4 hours for this to thoroughly enjoy it. The trail winds its way through the jungle from the headquarters and culminates at the peak providing spectacular views of the park from a lookout tower. Be warned, this trail is hard on the knees and is not for those who aren’t fit.
Overlooking Cat Ba Town you can visit Cannon Fort – a Japanese installation from WWII as well as a monument dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Cat Ba Town waterfront offers a nice selection of hotels and hostels to choose from, as well as many affordable restaurants and cafes. We frequented the Buddha Belly everyday – a wonderful Vegan restaurant. From the town you can also book excursions on the island or out in the bay. We booked ourselves a day trip of Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and kayaking from Cat Ba Ventures.
The best way to really see the island though is to rent a motorbike for the day and go exploring. The roads are practically deserted, and in good shape. With a tank of gas, you can easily traverse the entire island all day and explore the mountains and valleys in the most fun way possible. Don’t bother with a Xe Om, just get on and ride – and if you’ve never ridden, there’s no better place to learn.
Cat Ba Island means – Sandy Woman Island. According to legend, three women washed ashore upon the island having drowned. The islanders were saddened and built a temple to commemorate each one. Over time, the island came to be known as the sandy woman island – Cat Ba Island. There are three beaches on the island, aptly named Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2, and Cat Co 3. All the beaches are located on the southern tip near the town. The beaches have been dominated a bit by the only resort style hotels on the island, but they are still public access. If you want an even more secluded stay, you can make the jaunt over to Monkey Island. It’s just a ferry ride away, if you’ve made it as far as Cat Ba, it shouldn’t be a problem to figure out how to make it there.
We enjoyed Cat Ba immensely. It has probably been the highlight of our time in Vietnam. It was here that we got our taste of rural and secluded Vietnam. We got to traverse jungle, and see life outside the city. It was mostly quiet, and the air was fresh. People also seemed generally happier here than they did in the city – the dogs certainly were, they loved running up and down the streets. We liked it so much here, that we almost immediately extended our stay on the island by several days.
The island truly is beautiful, and we can’t recommend it enough. There is so much to do here, and it’s a much more relaxed Vietnam than you’ll find in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi.