Arriving in Cat Ba was a breath of fresh air to us. Having already spent some time in Hanoi and Sapa, we were ready for some time spent by the sea and we weren’t disappointed. Before I talk about this however, I’ll just touch on why I didn’t write about Sa Pa.
Whilst the scenery was amazing once we distanced ourselves from the main villages, it was still nothing special. Sa Pa may have once been a beautiful and peaceful place to spend a few days recovering from the stress of Hanoi, but now it is just as tourist ridden and noisy. Even the beautiful views are now dotted with resorts and construction projects, no doubt part of an attempt to bring even more people to the area, but there are so many people living in poverty there and the roads are in such a bad state of disrepair that I think the money is being wrongly allocated. If we had time, we would have gone to Ha Giang (pronounced Hah-zaan) instead, but we found ourselves needing to push on a little bit in order to get to the south on time.
Anyway, about Cat Ba! We really enjoyed our time here. We came at the beginning of October (Vietnamese off-season) so everything was really quiet. This meant we could enjoy a level of tranquillity that we had been looking for in Sa Pa, but by the sea instead! Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of tourists, but Cat Ba is a large island with many attractions and things to do so it doesn’t get crowded during this time at all. If you can, stay as close as possible to the main town as this is where you are likely to find the best forms of transport, the best travel agencies and the best bars/restaurants.
We stayed in Hoang Phuc Hotel, a medium sized family establishment with lovely big double rooms, complimentary breakfast in the morning and their own set of mopeds for rent. Situated near the centre of Cat Ba town, it was a great base for us to pop in and out of on our days out. We payed a little over … so it was great value for money and we would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Cat Ba.
Top things to do and see
1. Halong Bay Tour
Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay so is a great place to start the tour. Our tour guide told has that whilst in peak season, 60 buses of tourists arrive per day on Cat Ba to see Halong Bay, over 200 arrive in Halong itself, so save yourself some stress and go for the less busy option.
The tour itself was one of the favourite parts of my trip. Nothing can quite prepare you for the massive pillars of stone (karsts) that seem to just rise out of the water – not even the pictures plastered all over the internet. It really is quite spectacular!
We chose Full Moon Party Tours to take us around Halong Bay and they were the very best tour guides you could hope for. Our first stop was Monkey Island, named as such for obvious reasons, where we hiked to the top to see an incredible view of some of the surrounding islands. From there we cruised to the part of the trip where everyone stripped down and jumped off the side of the boat for a swim in the vividly green waters. Everyone except us as we thought there would be a chance to swim and snorkel later on!
From here we were taken on a kayaking tour, spending about an hour paddling through the spectacular landscape. It felt like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie! On the journey to the kayaks, we were provided with an excellent seafood lunch with plenty of options and a variety of vegetarian options and on the journey back to Cat Ba, we all sat on the top deck drinking beer, listening to music and being serenaded by our ever enthusiastic tour guide. It may have also been my 24th birthday so Maria, being the rascal that she is arranged for everyone to sing Happy Birthday to me through the loudspeaker – a highly embarrassing but entertaining experience.
Having now done the tour, we would definitely recommend that people pay for the 2 day tour through Cat Ba Ventures as it does sound like their package allows people to see more of Halong Bay and take a more scenic route through it. However, it was an amazing experience and whoever you book with (provided they are a licenced tour operator) will ensure that you get to take in as much of the stunning landscape as possible.
2. Cat Ba National Park
This is again something that everyone should do when in Cat Ba. The National Park is situated just a 10 minute drive from Cat Ba town and has landscape similar to that of Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. The result is a jagged, green horizon which will surely stir something in the heart of any adventure-seeker out there. To see this view, we trekked about an hour into the bamboo rainforest with the help of a guide from Cat Ba Ventures, who despite being 60 managed to outpace the four twenty-somethings following him.
There are some steep climbs and treacherously slippery footing, but the view is very much worth it. I would recommend waking up early to avoid the crowds that eventually line the route and the inevitable heat. Be sure to book through Cat Ba Ventures as they will be provide large bottles of water for each person and the price comes to about £5 per person for the half day experience.
3. Artillery Viewpoint (Cannon Fort)
This was another amazing place to get a good viewpoint of the island and the bay. It was in fact one of the best view we’ve seen in Vietnam so far so get yourself there for around 4.30pm and bring a few beers to watch the sun go down over Cat Ba town bay. Depending on the cloud cover, you will either be treated to a beautiful red sunset or a slow dimming of light. Either way, it is a beautiful spectacle! This fort was first built by the Japanese in WWII but the artillery was later utilised by the Vietnamese in their conflict with the US. There are a maze of well-labelled paths that will lead you around the top of the fort where you can find a museum, four excellent viewpoints and even a cafe which serves ice-cold beer to help you enjoy the relaxing sunset.
4. Hospital Caves
Found on the outskirts of the National Park, these caves were used by the Vietnamese military to treat their many wounded during the American conflict. The network of tunnels and caves is really quite spectacular and intriguing so be sure to visit. It is included in the half-day tour that Cat Ba Ventures run.
Best Eats and Drinks
1. Casa Bonita
A wonderful place to go for wholesome, filling and healthy food, this quickly became our favourite restaurant in Cat Ba. We returned three times and didn’t regret it. It is quite clear that there was a Western influence on the restaurant, but the menu was testament to that, mixing Western specialities with Vietnamese twists. It is also vegan and vegetarian friendly!
The restaurant was beautifully decorated and the rooftop terrace is a lovely place to go to enjoy a cold beer on a hot day.
2. Vien Duong
This Lonely Planet mentioned restaurant is definitely an experience. They, like many seafood restaurants by the coast in SE Asia, have tanks containing a variety of live crustaceans and fish at the front of the restaurants from which you can select. Whilst this may not be 100% ethical, this was the only place like it in Cat Ba in which we didn’t see dead fish or crabs floating around. The tanks seem to be replenished every day to provide fresh stock for customers and the food did taste quite good. Whilst on the pricier side for Vietnam, it is still relatively cheap by Western standards.
3. Like Coffee
We actually loved this little coffee shop to the point that we visited 4-5 times. It can be a struggle getting nice coffee in VIetnam but it was lovely here and we even got ourselves some food a couple of times. Our noodles turned out to be equally as delicious so we would definitely recommend this to any visitors of the island.
4. Quiri’s Pub
This place is just a short walk from the city centre of Cat Ba. Its serves great food and good cheap drinks. The staff are also really friendly so will probably have a chat with you once you’re finished.
5. Oasis Bar
This bar was amazing! Great atmosphere, VERY cheap drinks, and a pool table – a necessity for both myself and Maria as we are currently going through a phase. We had a fun night out here with a great Norwegian chap we met. If you’re into it, they also sell NOS balloons – it seems to be a thing in Cat Ba!
Cat Ba was great! We loved every minute and Halong Bay will stand out as one of my favourite memories from this trip. I would highly recommend that anyone spending time in the north of Vietnam visit Cat Ba, if only to take the tour of Halong Bay and the National Park. There’s plenty to do and see outside of those two options but they are a must when in the area.