cat ba - island paradise
North Vietnam,  Travel Guides,  Vietnam

Cat Ba Island – Add this island paradise to your travel plans now

Before “tourism development” takes over. With its serene nature, a bay that isn’t yet as overrun as Ha Long Bay and the sprawling national park Cat Ba has been a hidden gem for the longest time. And it still is as of now. However Cat Ba Island has become more of a trend-destination among the rich, inspiring investors to buy up land and build multi story hotels and huge resorts.

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Overview of Cat Ba Island

How to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba

There are lots of different operators who organize bus transports and ferry tickets from Hanoi to Cat Ba and back again. Then there are two main tour companies (that I know of) who offer transportation from Hanoi to Cat Ba (and back again) with their own buses and speedboats. The good thing about that is that you are guaranteed a spot on the speedboat after getting off your bus, with the ferry you’re leaving it up to luck.

The two companies are Good Morning Cat Ba* and Daiichi. Both companies run buses two to three times a day. It can take anywhere from three to five hours to go between the two destinations and you usually get water on board, as well as one toilet break in the middle.

Where to stay on Cat Ba

For me, there is only one choice: An Homestay*. This small family homestay has two rooms: One bigger one with a breathtaking view of the mountains from the bed and a private bathroom down the hall and a smaller one without a view, with a directly accessible private bathroom. The rooms are super clean, smell nice and the bed is HUGE and incredibly comfortable, with two blankets in the colder months and several pillows.

Tam, who owns the homestay with her husband Quynh, is a phenomenal cook and you’ll get to taste her cooking every morning with a delicious Vietnamese breakfast. They also offer dinner menus here and I can only urge you to at least book one, I have not found any better food on Cat Ba. Especially the grilled oysters are to die for.

What to do on Cat Ba

Cat Ba is a natural paradise. So to explore the nature of the island is the best you can do. There are many (MANY) tours being offered on Cat Ba, but you can do most things by yourself.

Learn about the Hospital Cave

When you drive from the city center towards the national park you can stop at the Hospital Cave on the way. You pay 40k VND admission to the lady in front of the cave to park your bike and enter the cave itself. When I went there two guides showed people around at random intervals, just when people showed up they would be shown around in English.

The Hospital cave served as a shelter and medical facility for Northern Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War and was never discovered. Inside the cave, they set up some equipment as well as dressed up some mannequins to show how it could have looked like back in the day.

While walking through the cave system your steps and voices echo. Pictures on the walls from the wartime make you consider what it might have sounded like with people in pain, injured or being operated on without anaesthesia…

You need about 30 Minutes for the entire cave, including the tour.

Visit Cát Bà National Park

Cat Ba National Park is one of the prettiest in Vietnam and is the heart of the UNESCO Cat Ba Archipelago Biosphere Reserve. So the National Park is much bigger than just the “park” you can visit on the main island Cat Ba.

Admission to the park is 80k VND. Keep your ticket to see both Trung Trang Cave and climb to the top of Ngự Lâm Peak. And to park in front of the entrance to the park you have to pay 5k VND, but honestly to keep the scooter from overheating that is a price I will happily pay.

Trung Trang Cave

This cave features lots of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. It has been lit up and there is a small paved path in the middle, for visitors’ convenience. While I was there I met only four other people, all Australian, who took a picture of me as well.

Ngự Lâm Peak is the highest peak on Cat Ba island. The round trip trek through the national park and up the mountain is only about 1,5 km long, but also over 550 m elevation one way. It took me 45 minutes to go up. And then after spending almost an hour at the peak about 15 minutes to go down.

Some parts of the trail have steps or stone plates, while others (like in the third picture) are left wild.

Day cruise of Lan Ha Bay

Visiting Lan Ha Bay (the less crowded cousin of Ha Long Bay) is one of the things you should do with a tour since you most likely don’t own a cruise ship. My homestay helped me book a day tour, with pickup and drop-off. It was less than half the price of the Ha Long Bay tour I did and so, so much better.

Read more about it here: Lan Ha Bay Cruise from Cat Ba

See the glowing plankton by Kayak

Another tour I can recommend is seeing the glowing plankton of Lan Ha Bay by Kayak at night. I booked this tour with Cat Ba Local and our guide Ryan was amazing. First, we got shipped out to the bay by a small boat, which stopped at a fish research place that operates like a floating village. Here we learned about the different kinds of fish in the bay and had some green tea.

Then we were picked up by a bigger boat, where we had dinner (grilled oysters, seafood spring rolls, fried fish, tofu, omelette and rice) and cruised slowly through the darkening bay.

When we got to the Kayaks everyone teamed up and our small group headed into the darkness. To see the glowing plankton was the highlight of the evening and it looked way more intense in reality than anything a phone could capture.

Cat Ba Cuisine Cooking Class

If you read my Cooking Class in Hoi An post you know I love taking cooking classes. The cuisine on Cat Ba is very different from Hoi An since as an island they have a stronger focus on seafood and things they can farm on the island itself. Even the influx of food from the mainland has not changed the cooking style that much.

You can choose your own menu for the private cooking class on Cat Ba and it starts with 1 person, so it is doable even for solo travellers! But if you want to do it with people you met at your hotel or hostel you can book for a small group, too.

First, we were welcomed with a Tamarind Juice. Then we got the recipes (we got to keep them!) and made spring rolls, Bò Lá Lốt (grilled lo lot leaves with minced beef inside), banana blossom salad, a special Vietnamese dessert and egg coffee under Tam’s guidance! While we were eating it we also got to try their infused rice wines for free!

private cooking class an homestay cat ba

More things to do on Cat Ba

Cat Ba has three white sand beaches, aptly named Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3. There is one more back close to Cat Ba town: Tung Thu Beach. It is more grey/brown, but still mostly clean and less frequented, which makes it a lot more peaceful than the other three.

You can take one of the tourist boats from Cai Beo Ferry Terminal and Dock to the pier at Cổng chào làng Việt Hải. From there you can rent a bicycle for 80k and explore the island road and Việt Hải Village. To get back to Cát Bà town you can take a small bamboo boat that takes you through the limestone islands of Lan Ha Bay for about an hour.

If you visit Cat Ba around September you can see many butterflies in Lien Minh Valley. It is even called butterfly-valley from the sheer amount you can see here. You can also go rock climbing here if that is your thing, but stick to the dry season (November to April) for that.

What and where to eat on Cat Ba

I linked all of the mentioned foods in the map at the end of the blogpost.

Honestly, the only thing you should be eating on Cat Ba is seafood. It’s tasty, easy to come by and affordable.

If you took my advice and stay at An Homestay I recommend you to book one or more of their private dinners. You won’t find food of this quality in a restaurant anywhere on the island for these prices. One day you could go for the local food dinner, the other you could eat seafood BBQ.

The local food dinner included:

  • Grilled oysters
  • Bò Lá Lốt (grilled lo lot leaves with minced beef inside)
  • Potatoes
  • Spring rolls
  • Crab Soup
  • Jellyfish salad
  • Rice Noodles
  • later Vietnamese dessert with ginger

You can book these dinners even when you are not staying with them! I included a link to them on their website here.

These are some restaurants I was recommended, but didn’t go to, since I was very happy with the food at the Homestay: CƠM NGON THUỶ PHƯỢNG – Here you pick what seafood you want, they make it for you, then you pay for it and eat it. They are right next to / in the market, so they get very fresh produce. And Quán lẩu nướng Thuý Anh for seafood hotpot. It is well-loved by locals and you won’t even get an English menu, but google translate will help you. Yummy 2 Restaurant for varied Vietnamese food, seafood and mango sticky rice.

For drinks, I can recommend Nam Phuong Coffee Shop. I went here several times during my week on Cat Ba, after being very disappointed with a different cafe that just had way too loud music. Drinks I can recommend here: Oolong Macchiato (hot and iced), Jasmine Macchiato (iced), Coconut Coffee (iced, different than in Central Vietnam or at Cong, but so so good) and Matcha Latte (hot).

I also had a good Latte at Like Coffee, but the music was way too loud for me.

How long to stay on Cat Ba

I would stay at least five days, even though after five days I wished I could’ve stayed even longer!

You need the first day to arrive there from Hanoi. The second day you go to the national park and caves in the morning, followed by a cooking class in the afternoon. On the third day, you go on the Lan Ha Bay cruise to relax from the national park climbing and hiking. During the fourth day, you can go to see the Canon Fort and relax on one of the beaches, before going kayaking at night to see the glowing plankton. On the fifth day, you take one of the tourist boats to Việt Hải Village. On the first day and both after the cruise and Việt Hải Village you can get a local dinner. The cooking class and the kayaking tour will have dinner. On the sixth day you leave and have a travel day to either Hanoi or Ninh Binh (there are direct bus connections to each from Cat Ba).

If you only have three days I would skip the cooking class (you can get similar great food in a private dinner) and Việt Hải Village, since you will cruise past it on the cruise and you saw Lan Ha Bay from a (albeit bigger) boat already.

Map of Cat Ba

How to read the map: Places to stay are purple, restaurants and cafes are green, things to do and see are blue and beaches are red. You can open the menu on the top left and see the names of the places on the map.

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Tourism and Controversies on Cat Ba

Disclaimer: The following statements are my own opinions and are in no way connected to or representative of any of the people or companies I mentioned before.

Five-star resort buys a beach

In 2019 a new five-star resort opened, which has bought one of Cat Ba’s three main white sand beaches. Yes, an entire beach. As a foreigner, you can still access the beach (since they’d rather let you go there as a non-guest than risk sending someone away who is a guest), but the locals who LIVE HERE are sent away and told they can’t access the beach anymore.

Cable cars

Currently (2024), in the summer months, the Sun World group operates a Cable Car going from the station Cáp Treo Cát Bà to Cáp Treo Phù Long station on Cat Ba island. Supposedly the view over the island and the bay is amazing. However, they are planning on building three more cable car lines along the west coast of the island, forever altering the natural landscape and nature.

Work on the next line has already begun and several hundred trees have already been cut down.

Canon Fort

One of the pre-covid destinations was the Canon Fort on the south-eastern side of the island. It was maintained as a viewpoint and museum. Nowadays it “belongs” to one man living there and when you want to enter the grounds you have to give him money, despite neither the land nor the museum parts are taken care of.

Floating Villages

One of the floating villages has allegedly been in Lan Ha Bay for around 7000 years. Now less than 50 families are living there, not because they wanted to move, but because they are supposedly responsible for the pollution of the bay and to reduce the pollution they have the choice to update their floating houses for a lot of money they don’t have or move to the island or the mainland.

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