Craggy, rugged and jungle-clad, Cat Ba Island is the largest of the 367 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern section of Lan Ha Bay. Almost half of the island and 90 sq km of the surrounding waters were designated a national park in 1986 in order to protect Cat Ba’s diverse ecosystems. What’s great about Cat Ba Island is that it maintains the remarkable and rugged features of Halong Bay. It is in fact, one of the must-see attractions in Halong Bay. No wonder just about every cruise company offers daily trips to the island, attracting throngs of tourists looking to enjoy a day of exciting and fun-filled activities.
Also called “Pearl Island”, Cat Ba is located in Cat Ba district, Hai Phong province, to the south of the world-famous Halong Bay. It’s about 50 kilometers (32 miles) from Hai Phong City, a trip that takes approximately 1 hour by speedboat. The island is divided into six communes and is home to 13,000 people. A further 4,000 live in the floating villages immediately off the coast.
History and Legend
Based on studies, the history of Cat Ba Island can be traced as far back as 6000 years ago. The name Cat Ba means “Women’s Island” and as with all things in Vietnam, there are a lot of interesting legends about it. One states that many centuries ago, three women of the Tran Dynasty were murdered. The bodies washed up to the shores of Cat Ba Island and were found by fishermen. The locals then built a temple for each woman and the island later became known as Cat Ba.
Cat Ba Island boasts an extremely diverse ecosystem with plenty of unique flora and fauna. There are 1,561 plant species identified from 186 families. There are also 279 animal species of which 23 are either classified as endangered or critically endangered. The fauna includes 53 species of mammals, 160 species of birds, 66 species of amphibians and reptiles and 274 species of insects. Aquatically, there are 900 species of fish, 178 species of corals, 21 species of seaweed, 7 species of sea snakes, and 4 species of sea turtles. With such high biodiversity, Cat Ba Island was officially recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Zone. It is no surprise that Cat Ba Island is also considered a wonder of nature.
When is the best Time to Visit Cat Ba Island?
The best time to visit Halong Bay is also the best time to visit Cat Ba Island. It all depends on your personal preferences. You can actually visit at any time of the year, but in general, the favorable weather for tourism falls in the summer and autumn, between April and November. This period is also the peak tourist season in Halong Bay, with numerous boat tours stopping on Cat Ba Island. The beaches hence can be packed with other tourists so you should go there earlier to find a good spot. The hotel prices go up during this time so make sure you book well in advance. To save more, you can visit the island from September to November. During these months, the climate transitions into monsoon season and people are back to work/school.
Temperatures go down from December onwards thus the weather becomes frigid. March and April are wet with drizzling, and June, July and August are hot and humid.
How Many Days to Spend in Cat Ba Island?
Three days on the island is most likely enough. You would have ample time to take in all the sights and sounds on and around Cat Ba. With the lush greenery, historical sights, fun activities and plenty of tourism services Cat Ba offers, your days will fly by quickly.
How to Get to Cat Ba Island?
Cat Ba island is usually part of the itinerary of a Halong Bay cruise. Companies like Orchid, Azalea, Peony, La Regina Legend, Era, Ylang, Heritage, V’ Spirit Premier, Scarlet Pearl, Stellar of the Seas, and Perla Dawn include the island in their itinerary. Tourists typically stay overnight at Cat Ba en-route to Halong Bay.
Gia Luan Pier, where boats from Ha Long City and Tuan Chau dock, is on the northern coastline. From there you can go to the main town, where most of the islanders live and most of the accommodation, tourism services and dining options are located. Alternatively, you can buy a ticket from Luong Yen Bus Station. After a three-hour bus ride to Hai Phong City, you’ll spend another 30 minutes on a hydrofoil to Phu Long Pier. From there, it takes another hour for buses to arrive in Cat Ba Town.
From Hanoi to Cat Ba Island
There are three ways to go from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island: by train, by shuttle bus, and by private car.
A train ride will take you from Hanoi to Hai Phong City. The trip takes around 2.5 hours and the ticket price is $3-4. From Hai Phong, you’ll need to board a speedboat going to Cat Ba Island.
Taking a shuttle bus is basically the same as traveling by train. The bus will only take you from Hanoi to Hai Phong City and then head to Cat Ba Island via speedboat. It takes about 1.5 hours to go by shuttle bus and ticket price ranges from $4-8.
The third option and arguably the most convenient is to travel in a private car. You will be transported directly from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island and the entire trip takes around 3.5 hours.
From Halong to Cat Ba Island
Transfer from Halong Bay to Cat Ba island is usually by ferry. There are several ferries that make daily trips to the northern section of the island. The ferry ride from Tuan Chau port to Cat Ba central port takes about an hour and costs 220.000 VND. The last trip is 3 p.m. From the pier it’s a 40-minute drive to Cat Ba town.
Getting Around Cat Ba Island
It is easy to get around Cat Ba as motorcycle taxis are affordable. You can also find motorbike rentals and the prices start at US$4 for 24 hours. If you are staying near the harbor, many hotels, bars, shops, and restaurants are easily accessible on foot. It is advisable to rent a motorcycle if you want to explore areas like the Cat Ba National Park. Daily rates cost 80,000 -100,000 VND – just make sure you have travel insurance and a valid driver’s license.
Cat Ba Island Attractions
Cat Ba is well-known as a place of entertainment, relaxation, leisure and recreation. The island is juggle-clad, with a large portion that is still untouched and wild as ever. Swimming, snorkeling, and diving are the most popular things to do on the island. Visitors can also enjoy a day of caving, trekking, and rock climbing at Cat Ba National Park. Professional rock climbers can push their limits against the jagged walls of Butterfly Valley. The restless can seek solace in search for inner peace through yoga and meditation at Cat Co 1. These are just teasers, let’s check out what other things this wonderful island has to offer:
Cruising Lan Ha Bay
The surrounding waters of Cat Ba belong to Lan Ha Bay, which has 300 or so karst islands and limestone outcrops. Lan Ha Bay’s landscape is just as beautiful as those of Halong Bay, not to mention it has the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches. And since it is far from Halong City, not so many tourist boats venture here, meaning Lan Ha Bay has a more isolated appeal. Take out a kayak and explore the area at your own pace, or take a sailing trip organized in Cat Ba Town.
Bird’s-Eye Views of Halong Bay from Cannon Fort
For one of the best views in Vietnam, head to Cannon Fort. It sits on top of a hill, High Point 177, and as the name suggests, it is 177 meters high. Hike up there to soak in the panoramic views of Cat Ba’s thick jungle and hills rolling down to colorful tangles of fishing boats on the karst-punctuated sea. The entrance gate is a 10-minute walk from Cat Ba Town, and from there it’s another 20-minute hike to the fort.
The facility is in a strategic location and served as an excellent lookout point for air and marine attacks. It was ingeniously constructed and you can still see many remnants of its time: cannons, trenches, tunnels, and items left behind by soldiers. The gun emplacements and tunnels were first built by the Japanese in World War II, but were also used by Vietnamese troops as a defense outpost during the French and American Wars (1945–1975).
Succulent Seafood at Quang Anh Village
If you are a huge fan of seafood, get your fishy fill at Quang Anh floating village-cum-restaurant. Here, you can buy fresh fish and shellfish by weight. You can have them fried, steamed, and grilled to perfection by chefs who know the best way to complement the local flavors.
Ancient Cai Beo Fishing Village
Cai Beo is one of the ancient fishing villages in Halong Bay and very famous in Cat Ba Island. If you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the town, this is the perfect place to visit. It is very serene and there are boats ready to tour you around to observe the peace and quiet of the foregone fishing village. There are 450 families that call it home. Squid fishing and clam and mussel farms are among the most common means of income in the area. Many cruise companies offer the option of squid fishing on overnight cruises.
Discover the Untouched Nature of Cat Ba National Park
With its limestone forests, caves, waterfalls, and streams flowing to the sea, Cat Ba National Park lures tourists to discover its natural beauty. It is a World Heritage Site designated as a biosphere reserve covering 17,040 hectares of land and 9,200 hectares of sea. The park has many diverse ecosystems including limestone forests, mangrove forests, and coral reefs. It is home to 32 species of mammal, including most of the 65 remaining golden-headed langurs, the most endangered primate in the world. The park has several hiking trails including a two-hour trek to Ngu Lam peak and a day-long hike to Viet Hai village. You can also go rock climbing and deep-water soloing above the turquoise waters of Lan Ha Bay.
Visiting the fishing harbor
The fishing harbor is where you should head to for a variety of delicious street food and local style bia hoi stalls. Not only does it make for a cheap night out, it’s also one of the best ways to connect with the locals and get to know the culture here.
Pay a Visit to Monkey Island
Monkey Island is just 1 kilometer away from Cat Ba town. It used to be called Cat Dua island because of the presence of a large number of wild pineapples. The name was later changed to Monkey Island as dozens of monkeys thrive there and they often come to the beaches to play with tourists. There are actually two arc-shaped beaches, namely Cat Dua 1 and Cat Dua 2. Both are ideal for swimming thanks thanks to their crystal-clear water.
It takes about 10 minutes to reach Monkey Island by boat from Beo wharf through Cai Beo fishing village. Almost all cruise ships stop there so tourists have an opportunity to appreciate the enchanting scenery and the pristine beaches.