Cat Ba Island: The Quieter Side of Ha Long Bay

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With limestone “karsts” that tower above the surrounding waters like skyscrapers, Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions. This being said, the adjacent city of the same name has gained a reputation for being noisy, overcrowded and downright dirty. Traveling an extra 45 minutes or so to the sleepy island of Cat Ba affords you not only a more tranquil place to lay your head at night, but also a bevy of other sights to see before or after you cruise the karsts.

Getting There from Hanoi

Cat Ba Island is decidedly more tranquil than the city of Ha Long.

As a result of Ha Long Bay’s location along Vietnam’s northern coast, the majority of travelers headed there originate in the nearby national capital of Hanoi. The journey from Hanoi takes between four and five hours, so it’s a good idea to start your day as early as possible, namely with a taxi from your hotel to the city’s Luong Yen bus terminal.

From here you have two options, the first of which is the simplest. Upon arriving at the bus terminal, find the Hoang Long counter and inquire about the combined bus and boat to Cat Ba, which departs at two hour intervals from 5:20 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. When I visited Vietnam in August 2010, the price was ₫200,000, or around $10 one-way.

Alternatively, take any government bus to the coastal city of Hai Phong, then take a taxi to its ship port and bargain with any Cat Ba-bound captain to get on his boat. This option requires a lot more logistical leg work on your part — and will probably save you a dollar or two at most — so use it only if, for whatever reason, other means to Cat Ba are sold out.

Lodging and Dining

Cat Ba is quieter than Ha Long by a long shot, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you’re headed for a Robinson Crusoe

It’s easy to see why seafood is such a popular choice in Cat Ba’s many restaurants.

fairytale, particularly as your bus coasts from the main ship dock around the mostly-deserted roads that hug the cliffs leading to Ca Ba town. If you find yourself getting delusional, your first glimpse at the town along the waterfront should shatter any illusions you have.

Of course, this is not a negative thing: it simply means that you won’t have any trouble finding lodging or a place to eat. Obviously, places right along the beach road will be more expensive than those you find going up any of the streets that intersect with it. If you happen to want or need wireless Internet, service is available, but keep in mind that you should check how the Internet works before confirming — and this probably won’t be the case if you’re booked in a room more than a couple floors off the ground.

Food-wise, literally dozens of restaurants line every road in the town, with seafood obviously being the main specialty. An interesting feature of many of these establishments is that they offer their own home-brewed “moonshine,” grain alcohol available for usually no more than ₫25,000 (or about $1.25) per shot. Obviously, it’s a good idea to use your better judgment and start slow when drinking any locally-made product, alcohol or otherwise.


Cat Ba’s scenery is breathtaking, regardless of whether or not you make it to Ha Long.

The famous, UNESCO karsts of Ha Long Bay are about a 30-minute boat ride away from Cat Ba itself, but that isn’t to say that the island doesn’t boast its own phenomenal scenery. After taking in the picturesque ship harbor that sits just in front of the town center, take a left on the main road — when looking out at the sea — and walk until you crest the hill that begins to build.

At this point, you should pass between two green hills. In the distance, you’ll see a different body of water — and if you keep walking, the entrance to a hiking trail. This trail takes you up over several of the island’s beaches and then around its hilly periphery, providing incredible views of the water below, where you’ll find several islands and even some limestone karsts.

When I visited in August 2010, the trail ended on a beach that was clearly of the “private resort” variety. If you don’t have the time or desire to re-trace your steps, just nonchalantly walk across the beach and ask any staff member you come upon to show you to the resort exit. No one should give you problems as long as you clearly state you don’t plan to stick around.

Cat Ba Town

My personal favorite part of Cat Ba island was the portion of the town where locals actually live. Instead of heading left as you would to the trail, take a right

A stroll into Ca Ba town provides you a glimpse into the lives of locals.

and follow the beach road until it dead ends. At this point, you can go left to take a walk along another portion of the harbor or turn right to head up the hill and into the town.

For most tourists, the town is nothing remarkable, a collection of shops, restaurants and later homes, which cater less and less to Westerns the further up the hill you go. As a photographer, however, the experience was almost transcendental, providing a candid glimpse into the lives of ordinary Vietnamese people. And animals: I was lucky enough to stumble upon an almost-newborn kitten frolicking around with its mother.

No matter how long you choose to stay on Cat Ba island or how you choose to spend your time there, you’ll be sure to find beauty, fun — and hopefully a bit of peace.

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