Asia

Cat Ba Island: for a cheaper (and better) Halong Bay experience

Cat Ba Island, at a size of 260 square kilometres, is the largest island in Vietnam’s iconic Halong Bay. It is best described as a cluster of the bay’s limestone karsts that have formed together to create a larger island. Although the main town, Cat Ba Town, is nothing to behold, exploring further inland you will find roads running through emerald valleys, fantastic viewpoints in the island’s national park, and the interesting remains of critical bases used during the Vietnam War.

From the island you can take one or two day cruises to explore the bay. Most begin in Lan Ha Bay, just to the southeast of the island, and then venture into into the main part of Halong Bay. You can expect kayaking, swimming, and even a short hike on Monkey Island for views across the bay (just beware, the hike involves some climbing and is a little treacherous, so wear decent shoes!). Day tours run from around 8:30am to 5pm, and cost a little as 330,000 dong ($15), including lunch.

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View from the top of Monkey Island

This sounds like very little compared to tours from the mainland, so you might expect the boat to be fairly crummy. However, the boat on my $15 tour (May 2016) was actually very nice with a wooden upper deck and wooden tables inside, was not overcrowded (15-20 people on a boat with the capacity for 40), and included a yummy, filling lunch! But take water with you, as drinks are not included and are overpriced on the boat.

On top of the money savings, by far the best thing about taking a cruise from Cat Ba Island is avoiding the throngs of cruises coming from the mainland. Setting off at 8:30am, you step onto the boat straight into the bay, surrounded by limestone karsts. On our tour we saw very few other boats, and when we did it was mainly at the stops. The rest of the time, the water was predominantly ours. Lan Ha Bay was especially quiet, as the day tours or even two-day tours coming from Halong City and Haiphong don’t get that far.

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Two day tours from Cat Ba usually make it into Bai Tu Long Bay too, in the northeast of Halong Bay, and include a night spent on the boat. Prices start from around 1,300,000 dong ($60). I only did the one day tour, but I would suggest that, unless you splash out (at least $150), the two day tour is probably not worth the extra cash. From other travellers who did the overnight option, the impression I got was that the boat was nothing special, there was nothing organised for the evening, and the additional parts of the bay that they visited were nothing new. All of the different areas of the bay look the same, so the main task is to find areas where there are no other boats. And this is what a cruise from Cat Ba allows.

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Fishing villages in Lan Ha Bay

It is also possible to take cruises solely in Bai Tu Long Bay (usually from Hanoi), but these are generally a lot more expensive, as so fewer boats head there; you are paying for the exclusivity. If you have the cash to splash, it’s probably worth it. If you’re on a backpacker budget, Cat Ba is the place for you.

A cruise is not the only reason to head to Cat Ba – the island has much more to offer. The best way to explore is by hiring a motorbike or scooter. The roads are mostly well paved and there is very little traffic, making it a good place for beginners. There is a long road that runs the length of the island from north to south, only 18km long, so it’s difficult to get lost.

Cat Ba National Park

In the middle of the island you’ll find the national park. The most popular thing to do here is hike up to the viewpoint for fabulous views across the island’s many mountains. It’s easy to find the correct path, as there is really only one from the main entrance to the viewpoint. The hike is around 1km up, and it gets extremely hot and fairly steep, so try to get there early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, and take plenty of water.

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Cat Ba National Park

The caves

There are several caves you can visit on Cat Ba Island, but the most interesting is Hospital Cave. During the Vietnam War, this large cave was transformed into a complex of rooms used as, you guessed it, a hospital. There was even a small swimming pool. It only takes around 15 minutes to explore the cave, and the way the hospital was engineered into such a space is impressive. There are other caves to see on the island, but these are less impressive, and you usually need to organise a ranger to open them for you.

Cat Ba Bay

Head to the very end of the main road, leading to the north of the island, and you reach the beautiful and fairly deserted Cat Ba Bay. The road winds down alongside the water until it heads straight into it and becomes a dock. It’s pretty stunning.

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Cat Ba Bay

Cannon Fort

Cannon Fort, just northeast of Cat Ba Town, was first installed by the Japanese in the Second World War, and then used by the French and Vietnamese during subsequent conflicts, including the Vietnam War. There are some interesting defensive structures to explore, and plenty of viewpoints that look across the bay.

To get to the fort, hiring a motorbike or taking a motorbike taxi is the best way, as it is possible to drive all the way up to the fort. It’s a long and hot walk up along the road if you choose to go by foot, and there is little shade.

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View of Lan Ha Bay from Cannon Fort

Beaches

Cat Ba Island has several beaches where you can relax and swim. You can expect some trash, but they’re nice enough if you want a bit of down time. Cat Co 1, 2 and 3 are around a 15 minute walk southeast of the centre of town. Just follow the main waterfront road, and take the left road heading up over the hills when it forks. The first cove you come to, Cat Co 1, is free, although you might be asked to pay a small fee to enter the others, as they are owned by resorts. Cat Co 2 is just north of Cat Co 1, and Cat Co 3 is to the south.

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Cat Co 1

Getting there from Hanoi

The easiest and probably cheapest way of getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi is to get a combination ticket from the Huang Long bus company, based at the Luong Yen bus station just to the south of Hanoi’s centre. There is no need to book in advance- just arrive at the office, based in the station building, around 20 minutes before departure. A taxi to the station from the old quarter costs around 50,000-60,000 dong (or less for a motorbike). Make sure to get one of the official green taxis, which run on the metre.

The combination ticket costs 250,000 dong ($11) [as of May 2016] and includes a coach to Haiphong, a minibus onwards to the Haiphong ferry port, the boat to the island and a bus from the Cat Ba Island port to Cat Ba Town. The entire journey takes around 5-6 hours. Trying to do the journey yourself will be a lot more hassle, and will more than likely turn out more expensive as you’ll have to take a taxi to the port in Haiphong, and then again to the main town from the port once you’re on the island. The boat ticket on it’s own is 150,000 dong.

Departure times from Luong Yen are: 07:15, 11:15 and 13:15 [May 2016], although these may change without warning, so try to find out the up-to-date times from your hotel/hostel.

Getting there from the south

If you’re coming from the south of the country, it is also possible to get a combination bus/boat ticket to the Island to avoid the hassle of finding your way to the ferry port when you arrive in Haiphong, and then to Cat Ba Town once you arrive on the island. Again, the combo ticket is likely to work out cheaper than doing it yourself.

For a cheaper and more exclusive Halong Bay experience, head for Cat Ba Island!

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2 thoughts on “Cat Ba Island: for a cheaper (and better) Halong Bay experience

  1. Hi, Thanks for amazing article! I’m planning to go to Cat ba tomorrow and really excited after reading your article. Which tour company did you choose for the day cruise?

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    1. Hi Yash! Great, you’re going to love Cat Ba! Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the tour company, as it was organised directly through my hostel. Most hostels can organise tours of the bay for guests, so that is probably your easiest option. Otherwise you can have a browse around town for a tour that suits you best – they are advertised all over! I hope that you have a great visit 🙂

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