An alternative to the ever poplar Ha Long Bay is a bay just south called Lan Ha Bay. Known more as a weekend vacation destination by local Vietnamese, this bay offers the same picturesque limestone cliff islands, with half of the tourists! Cat Ba Island is the largest of the 366 islands spanning 100 square miles that makes up the Cat Ba Archipelago. The island’s landscape is jungle-clad, rugged and dramatic with a wide variety of natural ecosystems – perfect for exploring by bicycle, motorbike or on foot, trekking. Whereas many of the Halong Bay Tours spend an overnight stop in Cat Ba Island, mainly sticking to Cat Ba Town and the pier for some cheap food and tacky karaoke… Visitors who linger for longer will be rewarded with quiet roads, uncrowded beaches and incredible views.
Take a series of busses and ferries from Hanoi to reach Cat Ba Island in only 4-5 hours. From Cat Ba you can book a tour around Lan Ha Bay (and sleep on an iconic boat!).
Places to stay:
Drifters Hostel offers cheap quality accommodation. For 3$ on weeknights and 5$ on weekends you can get an aircon dorm room with breakfast included. Located on the main strip in town across from the harbor and a 10-minute walk from the beach, Drifters is your best option for budget travel!
Sometimes Drifters fills up, but they seem to have some relationship with the hotel to their right and you can also get a dorm there for 5$ per night. So don’t fret if they say their full, ask about the place next door!
Things to do:
- Hit the beach!
There are beautiful public beaches (3 in the main town of Cat Ba) that are walking distance from downtown. But watch out, at approximately 4pm they become swamped with Vietnamese tourists who wait until the sun is less strong. It can get so crowded on a weekend that you don’t even have space to move around. Luckily for sun worshipers, at the sunnier hours of the day you will almost have the beach to yourself.
- Rent a Motorbike and tour the island
For 4-5$ you can rent a motorbike for the day and tour around the island. There is some hiking as well for those seeking more active things to do that simply lay at the beach. Approximately 50% of the island is covered by a National Park, which is home to the highly endangered Cat Ba Langur.
- Hospital Cave
There are many impressive caves on Cat Ba Island, but the most interesting has to be the underground bomb proof hospital and hideout which was used during the American War as a safe house for VietCong leaders. Built in 1963, the cave was in use as a hospital up until 1975 and today, you can hire a guide to show you around its 17 rooms, including operating theatre and a natural cavern that was used as a cinema and even had a swimming pool! The cave is about 10km from Cat Ba Town and a guide will cost you around 15000 VND.
- Cannon Fort
Built as a naval defence in 1942, Cannon Fort is the place to go for the best views of Lan Ha Bay. There’s a well signposted path that leads walkers up 177 metres to a look out point, which is about a 30 minute uphill struggle. Views of old bunkers and helicopter landing stations along the way, as well as incredible views of Cat Ba island, the limestone cliffs and Lan Ha Bay are well worth the climb.
- Spend time on the bay
Many tourism agencies offer overnight boat trips and activities. You can either spend the night on a boat or in a bungalow in a floating fishing village. One highly recommended tour agency is Asia Outdoors. It’s operated by foreigners so there will be no communication problems and they have very fair prices. You can spend a night on the boat with all meals and activities included (swimming with bioluminescent plankton, kayaking, rock climbing, etc.) for under 40$ per 2D/1N. You can book your trip in their office located just a couple buildings down the street from Drifters Hostel and then get 10% off in the restaurant that’s under their office (highly recommended).
By Jennifer Poole
Where to next?
You’ll have to go back to Hanoi from Cat Ba – where you likely travelled from. Here you can spend a few days drinking Bia Hoi on street corners, eating Pho and remembering how to cross the road all over again! Here are a few more ideas for where to go next…
- Head South via the Buffalo Run! Once in Hanoi, you can head down the coast exploring all the country has to offer and watching as the scenery changes with every stop. Vietnam Backpackers’ newest and very popular trip, the Buffalo Run (you can read our article about the trip here!) is a great, very good value for money way to explore the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Hoi An. Along the way experience you’ll incredible national parks, such as Cuc Phuong and Phong Na, visit the world’s biggest cave, discover exquisite hidden beaches, learn about the history of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, swim in waterfalls, visit historic tunnels from the Vietnam-American War and much more.
- The Buffalo Run – North West! A 5 night and 6 day adventure where you’ll get to experience 3 exciting destinations. The Mai Chau Valley, the untouched mountain village of Mu Cang Chai, and then finish at Buffalo Run Base Camp in Sapa. Organized by the epic Vietnam Backpackers’ Hostels, who cooked up ‘Halong Bay & Castaways Island Tour’ and above ‘Buffalo Run South’ – you are guaranteed a fun-filled adventure on this trip that’s made for backpackers! Check out more info here.