Nestled in Vietnam’s famed Halong Bay, Cat Ba is the largest of the 360+ islands in the archipelago, consisting of spectacular limestone hills and islets dotted with lakes, waterfalls, and grottoes. Almost half of the rugged, jungle-clad Cat Ba Island – along with its adjacent waters – is a national park, while much of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, dotted with sandy beaches and floating fishing villages. From Cat Ba Town, you can join organised treks or bike rides in the national park, try rock climbing, or kayak around the islets
RECOMMENDED NUMBER OF DAYS: 3 DAYS
PRINCIPLE ACTIVITY: KAYAKING, CLIMBING
MUST-SEE: CAT BA NATIONAL PARK
The extensive park is home to the highly endangered golden-headed Cat Ba langur (fewer than 60 specimens are thought to survive in the wild) as well as deer, civets and several species of squirrel. Within the park, you can visit the multi-chambered Trung Trang Cave or tackle the challenging 18km hiking trail up to a mountain summit (6 hours) for incredible views.
At 177m, the tunnels and cannon battlements were built by the Japanese in WWII but were subsequently used by the French and Vietnamese during the Vietnam War as a naval defence point. Today, the hill is the island’s best spot for views across the bay, especially at sunset.
There are plenty of caves featuring magnificent stalactites and stalagmites, some brightly-lit to showcase their beauty. The most popular include Da Hoa Cave (with its colossal caverns, clear lake, and sinkhole with ancient carvings) and Thien Long Cave (Dragon Cave) with its impressive curtain-like stalactite structures.
Built in a cavern in the hills in the 1960s, the 17-room underground hospital and hideout (for Viet Cong leaders) were built with bomb-proof concrete laid out over three stories. Used until 1975, it was equipped with escape tunnels and features an old operating theatre and a huge cinema cavern.
LAN HA BAY
Geologically, Lan Ha Bay is an extension of Halong Bay but is less crowded due to its distance from the mainland (it’s located southeast of Cat Ba Island). You can explore this archipelago of islets on kayak tours or on bay cruises.
All climbing areas around Cat Ba require an access pass (US$1-3/day) as they are privately owned, so obtain one in advance from climbing operators. Popular climb sites include Lien Minh’s Butterfly Valley with over 60 climbs on offer, Hidden Valley (Ang Va) with its vertical walls and over 33 sport routes and a bouldering cave, and Ben Beo Wall which has 7 hard climbs overlooking the fishing harbour.
The best way to explore Lan Ha Bay is on a kayak – most operators will take you out on traditional Vietnamese junk boats before you board a kayak. The maze of islets are best done with a guide as the changing tides can close passages and thick mist can suddenly form.
You can either rent a bicycle and explore the island on your own, stopping by villages and caves along the way, or go on cycling tours that take you to the national park, fishing villages, or around the island.
Many accommodation options can be found in Cat Ba Town as well as on smaller islands surrounding Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Island is 160km from Hanoi, and the easiest way is to take a direct bus which takes 3.5 to 5 hours and crosses the Tan Vu-Lach Huyen bridge (the longest bridge in SEA, completed late last year). Plenty of tour operators have pick-up services from Hanoi to Cat Ba which includes a bus and ferry ride. There is also a seaplane service (45 mins) from Hanoi to Halong Bay.