Cat Ba Island is the largest of the 366 islands spanning 100 square miles that make 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!
While many of the Halong Bay Tours from Hanoi 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 perfect for biking, uncrowded beaches and incredible views!
An alternative to the ever-popular Halong Bay, just to the south, is the wonderfully uncrowded and just as beautiful, Lan Ha Bay, which can be reached easily from Cat Ba Island on a day tour or overnight tour. Known more as a weekend vacation destination by local Vietnamese, this bay offers the same picturesque limestone cliff islands and with half of the tourists! Read more about Lan Ha Bay here.
Where to stay on Cat Ba Island
1. Central Backpackers Hostel, Cat Ba – With dorms at $5 US a night, a great location and a swimming pool, budget backpackers can’t go far wrong with this friendly hostel! It’s a great place to meet fellow travellers and socialise as well as book budget trips to Lan Ha Bay. The cheap food, drinks, free buffet breakfast and happy hour are also a bonus! P.S. Central Backpackers runs the popular Halong Hideaway Tour, which can be started from either Hanoi or Cat Ba Island.
2. Cat Ba Mountain View – This hotel which is popular with backpackers who decide to chill out in Cat Ba for a few days. There’s a lovely swimming pool with a beautiful view all across the bay. Rooms are cabana style, clean and with AC. You can opt for a private room or dorm style. Prices start at just $6 US for a dorm bed.
3. CatBa Lucky Family Hotel – A friendly, welcoming place where the receptionist, Kenny, can’t help you enough! Rooms are clean and spacious with AC and private bathrooms. Prices for double private rooms start at $30 US.
4. Victor Charlie Hostel 2 – Amazing value for money at $6 US for a basic double or twin room, this hotel has everything you need to enjoy your stay in Cat Ba; cheap tours, motorbike rental, laundry service, helpful staff. Get a room on the 7th floor for great views over the bay.
5. Secret Garden – A little chilled out hippie haven in Cat Ba Town, Secret Garden feels like a hidden oasis even though it’s just a short walk from everything in the town. With regular live music nights, great food and daily shared family dinners (included in the price), it’s a good place for travellers to meet and mingle. Good choice for solo travellers, vegetarians and vegans as there are lots of alternative menu options. Beanbags and cool vibes. Dorm beds start at $10 US.
6. Sao Mai Hotel – A good option for families and couples, this hotel is amazing value for money with clean private twin or double rooms from $8 US per night (with en-suite bath and private balcony). Comfy beds, good AC. Nothing fancy but no issues and very central location.
Things to do on Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba town is rather unexciting as a city, filled with tacky hotels and restaurants. It is mainly an anchor point for most 3-day/2-night trips from Hanoi, as one night is usually spent on the boat, and one night on Cat Ba Island. Nonetheless, it’s an okay place to base yourself for a few days to explore what the rest of Cat Ba has to offer. The vista from the harbour is a great teaser of what’s waiting for you in the ‘bay(s)’ in terms of views, and delicious fresh seafood is available everywhere you go!
- Our favourite eatery: Yummy Restaurant (it’s literally called that and was indeed yummy!). Brilliant service, delicious food at street food prices.
- Our favourite watering hole: Oasis Bar. Exceptionally friendly staff and unbeatable happy hour, with draught beer at 10K from 4 pm until 2 am and 2-4-1 cocktails.
Cat Ba beaches
There are beautiful public beaches (three in the main town of Cat Ba) that are walking distance from downtown. The closest beaches are known as Cat Co Beach 1, 2, 3 and are sandy, pretty and good for swimming. But watch out, at approximately 4 pm they become swamped with Vietnamese tourists who wait until the sun has eased off a bit. It can get so crowded on a weekend that you don’t even have space to move around. Luckily for sun worshipers, during the sunnier hours of the day, you will have the beach almost to yourself.
Day trips to Lan Ha Bay
Many of the shops on the main drag in Cat Ba Town, just up from the pier, offer day trips to Lan Ha Bay for around $20-$30 USD. The trips normally start at 8am and finish at 5pm and include kayaking, fishing village, lunch, swimming (possible snorkeling) etc. It is possible to book these trips the day before and there are normally 20-40 people per boat. Recommended companies include Cat Ba Ventures, Cat Ba Local and Central Backpackers Hostel who offer a full day tour for $20 US. Note – Avoid the trips that include a visit to Monkey Island unless you’ve had your rabies shot as the monkeys can be really aggressive!
Go rock climbing
The limestone karsts of Cat Ba National Park are great for rock climbing. (Did you know that the mountains here are part of an ancient coral reef that extends as far as Guilin in China and as far as Krabi in the South of Thailand, where you’ll see the same rock formations.) Companies such as Cat Ba Climbing offer half and full day climbing tours.
Visit Cat Ba National Park
For 4-5$ you can rent a motorbike for the day to tour around the island and visit Cat Ba National Parl. There is some hiking in the park for those seeking more active things to do rather than 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. If you don’t fancy motorbiking, there’s a bus from the city that for 30,000 VND takes you to the national park. (If you go early in the morning you can climb to the the highest peak without dying of heat.)
The 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 Viet Cong 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.
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.
Stay in a floating homestay
From Cat Ba Island you can catch a boat and head out to one of the unique floating homestays of Lan Ha Bay. Staying right on the water, you can kayak from your bed to explore beaches, caves and floating villages of Lan Ha. It’s a unique accommodation and one that will allow you to experience the real life of the bay. The homestays start at around $40 US for 2 people in a double room.
How to get to Cat Ba Island
The best way to get to Cát Bà Island from Hanoi is by direct bus. There are several bus companies who run this route, two of which are Cat Ba Express and Good Morning Cat Ba. Both companies offer seats at similar prices on buses running at similar times, and these can be booked directly through their websites. Here’s the general information:
- Tickets cost $11-14 USD (check the company websites for up to date prices) and include pick up from any hotel in Hanoi Old Quarter.
- Both companies also offer round trip tickets at a discount if you choose this option rather than booking both journeys separately.
- Buses depart at several times during the day: 7.30, 10.30-11 and 14.00-14.15.
- The journey takes around 3-3.5 hours, including the ferry journey over to Cát Bà.
- Both companies will take you directly to Cát Bà Town.
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 eating Pho and remembering how to cross the road all over again! After that, before you leave the North of Vietnam, you can plan your trekking to Sapa, start planning a motorbike adventure of the Ha Giang Loop or book a trip to Ba Be National Park.
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. Along the way, experience incredible national parks, such as Cuc Phuong and Phong Na, home to 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. (Vietnam Backpackers’ popular trip, the Buffalo Run is a great good value for money way to explore the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Hoi An.)