Cat Ba Island: an alternative base for exploring Ha Long Bay

Cat Ba is one of the main islands on the Ha Long Bay and a tourist hot-spot for those who want to explore this stunning UNESCO World Heritage site. As any tourist-oriented place, Cat Ba town isn’t the most pleasant locations you can imagine. There are a couple of small, crowded, hotel-fringed beaches and the hyper-inflated prices in restaurants and shops are a norm. Yet, Cat Ba Town is still more low-key than Ha Long city. There are a couple of interesting places to visit on the island itself, including a small national park and a cave used as a hospital during the Vietnam War.

A view from Cat Ba island at the karst rocks rising from the sea and the cliffs of the Cat Ba island itself

Cat Ba Town vs. Ha Long City

We couldn’t leave Vietnam without seeing Ha Long Bay: large bay filled with karst rock formations mushrooming from the water. It is among one of the most impressive sights in South East Asia so no wonder it’s tricky to visit the area away from the crowds yet within reasonable budget.

The karst landscape of Ha Long Bay: narrow isthmus beetwen two vertical limestone rocks covered with greenery

There are two main gateways to Ha Long Bay: Ha Long City and Cat Ba island. We chose to travel to Cat Ba island. Ha Long City has a reputation of an ugly destination full of high-rise hotels and neons. Cat Ba Town, although still very much a tourist hub, is less developed. The island itself is pretty, there are a couple of attractions inland and the beaches are passable. We decided on Cat Ba also because we wanted to try a tour of a specific company which tries to get away as far away from the crowds as possible. Our strategy proved successful.

From Hanoi to Cat Ba island

We took a very posh (though still the cheapest available on sale online) bus to Cat Ba town which picked us up from the Hanoi Old Quarter. Free snacks, water and hand tissues were supplied onboard and the bus stopped at a very decent toilet on the way. We were quite unaccustomed to this level of treatment.

The pier at Cat Ba island with lots of small rowing boats and green karst rocks rising form the sea in the background

The bus then entered a car ferry in order to reach Cat Ba island. We rode along the island’s coast until we eventually arrived in a very busy Cat Ba Town. It was Friday, just before Vietnamese mid-Autumn festival, so the island was full of domestic tourists.

Cat Ba on a backpackers budget

We were surprised with how fabulously cheap the accommodation in Cat Ba town was. Despite the festive weekend, we found the best value for money room during our entire stay in Vietnam. A lovely, bright room with a balcony and a slither of a view at the sea cost us mere $4!

Finding a place to eat, though, was a different story. Failing to come across any com binh dan (buffet style eatery) with ‘real’ prices, we went to a not particularly exciting vegetarian restaurant. In the evening, we ate some uninspiring food in a little lane a few blocks away from the sea.

I was craving for fruit but a visit to a local market was a shock. Every single seller was quoting exorbitant prices for any kind of fruit. The prices were made-up on the spot in a shameless way reminding me of Thai vendors in the tourist destinations. I preferred to deny myself a pleasure of fruit rather than pay 4 times more than normal. Shops were overpriced, too but within the limits of decency.

The next morning I woke up early to hunt for breakfast. I was satisfied with only slightly overpriced bahn mi but then got really excited to see sticky rice cooked with mung bean and served with fried onion. I was lucky to witness a Vietnamese man paying for it so I could pay the fair price.

Cat Ba beaches

Theoretically, there are 3 beaches in the close vicinity of Cat Ba Town. Craving for a swim, we started the exploration of the island with that. We had a short walk along the marina and further along the coast until we reached a narrow, decently looking beach. A small resort with a restaurant was facing the beach. The bay was flanked on one side by a green hill and on the other by a construction site for a high-rise hotel.

Cat Ba beach: white sand, light blue water and the karst cliffs and  karst rocks in the sea

If not for the eyesore of a new multi-storied hotel being built and the constant noise from the construction site, it wouldn’t be a bad beach. As it was managed by the resort, it was clean. I enjoyed particularly a pleasant view at karst islands in a distance. It also had some immersed mini-caves in a hillside to explore. The beach was quite empty when we got there (around 3pm). There wasn’t any shadow apart from the paid sunbeds, though. The nearby hills started to cast the shadow on the beach in the late afternoon.

Cat Ba beach from above with a huge hotel in construction in one corner and a narrow strip of sand in a bay

I was curious of the other beaches so we picked up our things and took a narrow coastal path leading up and across the hill to the next bay. The walk was really nice as we could enjoy the views from above at the nearest karst rocks.

Unfortunately, the next beach was a total disappointment. The entire bay turned into a massive construction site. A resort with a swimming pool at one end of the bay was somehow still running and even had guests. We knew there was supposed to be another beach in the next bay but the road leading to it was used by trucks and closed. So much for the three beaches on Cat Ba.

Attractions on Cat Ba

Unfortunately, we had only one full day to spend on Cat Ba and that was reserved for a boat trip to Ha Long Bay. We booked a one-day tour with the Cat Ba Ventures, highly recommended on the forums and blogs.

If only we had one day extra, we would have rented a motoribike and gone to Cat Ba National Park for a hike to a view point. There is also the Hospital Cave near the national park’s entrance used during the Vietnam War as a shelter for Viet Cong and a military hospital. Both attractions are paid.

Cat Ba to Hanoi

Unwisely, we left buying a bus ticket to Hanoi to the last moment. It turned out (unsurprisingly, considering the festivities) that all the tickets were already sold out. Our hotel’s manager rescued us: not only did he get us tickets for a bus arriving in half an hour, it was also cheaper than buses listed on online sites.

There was a huge rush and a long queue to get on the ferry out of the island. Our bus dropped us there and we had to pick up our luggage and board the ferry on foot. On the other side, another bus was waiting for us. It took us all the way to Hanoi. It was taking ages until we finally got off as the bus was dropping people off at their respective hotels, making snail-paced rounds through the narrow lanes of Hanoi Old Quarter.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Cat Ba island?

From Hanoi
There are many bus companies operating from the Old Quarter in Hanoi to Cat Ba Town (around 4h, depending on the ferry). It’s good to shop around to find the cheapest option (check vexere.com).

The cheapest buses depart from Gia Lam station to Ha Long city but you’re unlikely to save money on that option. You would need to take a city bus to Gia Lam (no.34), a motorbike taxi from Ha long city to the pier, a ferry to Cat Ba pier and then another bus to Cat Ba Town (see below) which would be a lot of hassle and would take a long time.

From Ninh Binh/ Tam Coc
You can get to Cat Ba Town directly from Ninh Binh and Tam Coc by a luxurious bus with a pick up and a drop off service for 350 000 VND (5 h journey).

From Hai Phong
There is a hydrofoil ferry (1h journey) from Hai Phong’s Pha Binh/Benh Binh warf directly to Cat Ba town. Bus no.2 would take you from Hai Phong centre to Benh Binh warf. The prices differ depending on the season, from 180 000 to 240 000 VND. Beware, there are reports of over-inflating price for the tourists.

Alternatively, you can take a bus of Hoang Long company. It requires switching to a speedboat in Dinh Vu pier, disembarking at Cai Vieng pier and boarding another bus to Cat Ba town at Cai Vieng pier. The whole journey would take 1.5-2h.

You can also take a public bus from Hai Phong’s Lac Long bus station to Ha Long Bai Chay bus station (departs every 15 min, takes 1h, 40 000 VND). Once there, get to Tuan Chau Warf and take a ferry (see below)

From Ha Long City:
The ferry leaves from Tuan Chau Warf in Ha Long City 5 times a day (last at 3pm), takes 1 hour and costs 80 000 VND. A xe om from Ha Long centre to the warf should cost around 10-20 000 VND.
The Ben Pha Gia Luan pier in Cat Ba is at the opposite end of the island than Cat Ba town. There is a minibus from the ferry terminal, leaving after every ferry. The journey costs 30 000 VND and takes around 30 minutes.

Cat Ba prices [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]:

683 500 whole day cruise in Ha Long Bay incl. a meal and kayaking
180- 200 000 cheapest bus Hanoi Old Quarter – Cat Ba Town
100 000 an en-suite double room with AC
40 000 cheapest meal in a restaurant
10 000 sticky rice with beans from the street

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