Cat Ba proved to be the perfect getaway, strongly contrasting with the chaos of Hanoi and the crowded vibe of northern Halong Bay. Starting from two nights only, we ended up spending there a whole week, and Vietnam finally felt like the place to be.
The island, even though pretty tourist-oriented, seems more like a resort for the locals than for the swarms of English or French speaking travellers. While there’s quite a lot of restaurants with Western food and their menus are usually bilingual, somehow it still feels relatively untouched by the hoards of backpackers making their way through South-East Asia – and maybe that’s the reason why you’re mostly welcomed by the friendly smiles or indifference, which is still a better approach than open hostility or laughter that we got used to in Hanoi. There are, of course, many foreigners, but their number is way smaller than in the capital or Ha Long. If you’re unlucky, you can also get yourself into the middle of the Vietnamese holiday season – then, the island is extremely busy and even though you can still do a lot to escape the crowds, the place probably loses a lot of its tranquility.
If you’re there in the right time and the weather is good, you won’t have time to be bored. Here are some of the attractions that Cat Ba has to offer:
- The activities
Already mentioned in the Halong Bay article, Cat Ba Ventures, a small, local company, has some amazing off-the-path activities which definitely top all the cruises available for booking from Hanoi. For less than $30/person, we spent the whole day kayaking in the grottos full of bats and admiring pristine lagoons with monkeys jumping in the trees above us. We also had a chance to swim and rest on a deserted beach amidst the stunning islands. Twice. Jumping into the water, we watched the sun set behind the stunning limestones and later feasted on piles of delicious seafood. That was, by far, our best day in Vietnam.
Apart from the cruises, the company offers much more, so we also decided to try a short and “easy” hike with a brief visit to the famous Hospital Cave. Maybe it’s us being out of shape (fully justified by the absolute need to try ALL the Polish food in one month that sadly ended not more than three weeks ago), or maybe it’s the climate – but the hike fell more into the category of exhausting rather than smooth and relaxed. Still, it was definitely worth it and when we finally reached the top of the mountain, covered in tons of sweat and dead insects, the satisfaction was undeniable. Realizing that we walked for merely less than an hour, our enthusiasm dropped a bit, but still – we were on the peak of Cat Ba and the view was breathtakingly beautiful. As a bonus, it was too high and hot for all the buzzing creatures, so we could finally sit down without doing the frantic, limbs-waving dance, well-known to the people struggling with tropical mosquitoes. For 20 minutes, everything felt perfect.
- The beaches
Cat Ba has three beaches open to the public: Cat Co 1, 2 & 3. Even though in the season the first, most easily accessible one can become painfully crowded, now there were almost no people – and the ones that visited spent most of their time neck-high in the water and talking to their friends and family. From time to time a couple of Westerners held an overly loud beer conversation, but they also quickly surrendered to the peaceful atmosphere of the place. In the evenings, local guys would come to play football, while a lonely backpacker would sit by the rocks with a rugged, torn book. Some Japanese tourists would take fifteen attempts of a happy jump for a perfect selfie, while others enjoyed the breeze under a frilly sun umbrella. The fact that these were pretty much the biggest events there made it a great place to sit back and mentally prepare for the rest of our trip.
- The national park
One-third of the island is occupied by the wondrous, beautiful national park, which turns it into a perfect place for all the hiking and trekking enthusiasts. Its goals are, among others, to preserve nature and promote eco-tourism. Not only is it a stunning, tropical location that’s definitely worth visiting, it is also home to a critically endangered monkey species, the white-headed langur. (Be sure to head out there and support the conservation project!)
Don’t Be Clueless:
If you decide to go to Cat Ba in high the season, bring some money with you – the ATMs might be empty, since there’s only two of them. One is situated in the Holiday View Hotel (Saigon Bank, only for Visa holders), the other (Agribank, accepts most of the European and American cards) you’ll find in a small booth opposite to the Thao Minh New Star Hotel.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re on a tight schedule, you should check the weather before heading out to the island. If a storm hits, taking a ferry or a speedboat between Cat Ba and Ha Long or Hai Phong is impossible. Still, the weather there can be completely unpredictable, and so even though everyone was almost sure that the conditions will be too bad to go on the day we were supposed to travel further, the weather turned out to be perfect.