Situated amongst thousands of beautiful limestone karsts in the South China sea, Cat Ba Island has an enviable location. It’s known as a cheaper location from which to explore Halong Bay, but we were happy to discover it has so much more to offer than just this.
There are lots of beautiful spots which are easy to reach but far away from the crowds of travellers who come to explore Halong on the cheap. After visiting Hanoi and Sapa (which can feel busy at times), it was refreshing to get away to a small town and see a truly beautiful and natural part of Vietnam.
It’s the perfect place to grab yourself a scooter and explore for a few days.
The best things to do on Cat Ba Island
Whilst it isn’t worth lingering in Cat Ba town, it is a good base for a lot of the best things to do in the area. From here you should be able to either hire a motorbike or find someone to help you with a boat for the following.
Kayaking around the stunning Lan Ha Bay
We came to Cat Ba Island having already done a Halong Bay cruise but wanted the chance to see a less busy bay in the area. Unexpectedly given we had already seen many beautiful karsts on our cruise, kayaking around Lan Ha Bay was our favourite thing to do in the whole of Vietnam!
Being able to rent a kayak in the middle of this stunning natural wilderness was one of the few times we could independently explore and take in one of the wonders of the world without anyone else around.
We knew Lan Ha would be quieter than Halong but we weren’t expecting to spend large parts of our day entirely alone, it was absolutely magnificent and reason enough to come to Vietnam in itself! .
You start by taking a boat from town to a random floating house with several kayaks tied up. The people who rent them out are pretty chilled, not being too worried about how long you are going for, so there is no pressure to keep an eye on the clock.
This means the whole of Lan Ha Bay is your playground! There are so many coves, bays and places to explore, that you can easily spend a whole day paddling around. We never got tired of staring at those beautiful limestone karsts, you feel dwarfed by them in your little kayak, magic.
What also makes it so enjoyable is that the water is pretty flat so the kayaking is easy. There’s the occasional boat who will pass by, but on the whole there are no waves, just a few currents to help you on your way.
It is pretty straightforward to organise as well. Most travel agents in Cat Ba will be able to help you, or you can chance your luck at the harbour. There’s a surly woman there who will promise the world, try to charge a fortune, not really deliver and get angry when you don’t think her service is very good. Her favourite line is “just 5 minutes more” which will be repeated for over an hour.
You will need to purchase a conservation ticket from the harbour. This cost 40,000 dong per person ($2 USD) when we did it.
However, don’t let this put you off. It is one of the best things to do in Vietnam, so persist. Once you’re on the water you’ll forget all about her, especially if you do our next favourite thing….
Find your own private beach paradise
Another reason we loved kayaking around Lan Ha Bay was being able to find paradise beaches with no one on them! Whilst this was something that was quite easy to do in Australia, it’s much more difficult in Southeast Asia.
Whereas Halong Bay can be pretty crowded with every square inch of sand being taken, Lan Ha seems to be a world away.
We’d only expected to paddle around a couple of bays, take in the views and head back. Instead we found the stunning Vanboi Island and the equally beautiful (but habited by backpackers) Freedom Island.
Vanboi island (location below) has a beautiful beach on the edge of a resort that no one goes to (we’ll explain that later, check out the “where to stay” section).
The result is a empty beach, still sea and epic view all to yourself. You can also drop by the bar and have a drink - Vietnamese iced coffee and those views is as close to paradise as you can get. It was one of our favourite ever travel experiences.
You can also choose to stop by Freedom Island (location below), which is arguably more beautiful than Vanboi. It has two beaches with beautiful karst views and the perfect water for swimming. The one on the other side of the island from where you pull up in the kayak is the most spectacular.
It really would be heavenly but…..
It is home to a rowdy hostel; the type where swimwear is the dress-code, booze is served with breakfast and condoms are literally on the menu (seriously, they are listed with the drinks).
Not our scene but it’s worth pulling up just to check out that beach on the far side - which is only a couple of minutes walk.
We’re sure there are plenty more beaches, but those are the two we explored.
Make sure you take your phone with you and screenshot your starting position on google maps. It could be quite easy to get lost in Lan Ha as there are no signs, no landmarks and the kayaking place is tucked away in a random bay.
Hiking to this stunning viewpoint - Ngu Lam Peak
Distance - 3.6km return
Time taken - 45 minutes up and 30 down
We’ve hiked in a lot of places, but the award for the sweatiest hike has to go to Cat Ba’s Ngu Lam Peak. Whilst short, this walk is incredibly humid and by the end everyone we saw was soaking.
But the effort and sweat is worth it. Ngu Lam is an incredible viewpoint to take in the wilderness of Cat Ba and see the hundreds of hill tops on the island. It is also a trail where you won’t need a guide - something that isn’t very common in Vietnam.
You’ll need to hire a motorbike and drive to the entrance of Cat Ba National Park (it is marked by a huge arch on the main road - location below). Once you’ve parked up, the path starts along a concrete road.
The proper walking track is marked by a restaurant serving cold drinks; you will laugh at first (wilderness it isn’t) but it will come in handy later when you’re dehydrated.
The path meanders through the jungle and undulates quite a lot. The majority is a gradual uphill path which is in very good condition.
The main part to be wary of is the final 20 metres which is rugged rock, though it isn’t difficult as such it is quite slippery on the descent.
Your first viewpoint is pretty good: a multitiered lookout tower with views to the surrounding hills. It is a great place to take a breather, admire the hills and cool down.
Make sure you carry on to the second viewpoint. This one doesn’t have any barriers and offers a 360 uninterrupted panorama.
It isn’t a place for people with vertigo, but if you want the best view of Cat Ba, this is the place to go.
The walk on the way down feels considerably quicker and less sweaty. You’ll also find the restaurant at the bottom like an oasis in the desert after the hike!
You’ll need to pay the park entry fee which is 40,000 dong per person (just under $2 USD).
Enjoy a scenic cruise on the public ferry
Little did we know that the ferry from Dao Tuan Chan (not far from Halong City) went through one of the most picturesque parts of Halong Bay on its way to Cat Ba Island.
It’s quickly gone into our most scenic ferry rides ever. It had us ‘wowing’ once every few minutes!
Granted, it’s a cargo boat with benches, but the views on this boat ride are as good as any you’ll get on a private trip round either Lan Ha or Halong Bay.
Plus you’ll only be paying 40,000 dong per person ($2 USD).
The ferry runs three times a day from Dao Tuan Chan (8.00am, 10.30am and 3pm). You can either get a minibus Ben Pha Gia Luan (25,000 dong, just over $1 US) or taxi into Cat Ba.
It’s certainly the most scenic introduction to Cat Ba.
Read more - Sapa: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
The hospital cave
It seems that nowhere is untouched by the Vietnam War and even Cat Ba island had it’s part to play. Despite being a mostly rural island, Cat Ba has a couple of gun turrets and it’s own cave hospital.
You’d never see it without being told it was there as the entry looks like any normal small cave. But once you walk up you’ll see it’s actually a huge complex created to treat the wounded during the war with the Americans.
At the side of the highway is a small path up the stairs to the entry.
The owners have tried to recreate the hospital with creepy mannequins dressed as Vietnamese soldiers, but you do still get the feeling of how horrific the conditions were during the war.
There was no natural light, the whole place was incredibly damp and even during the day it felt dark.
Sadly, as with many Vietnamese attractions there is not much information available, so you’d really need a guide to help you understand more about the area (there were no guides at the cave so you would need to bring someone from town).
You look around the mostly empty rooms and the few photos give you a better idea of how it must have been. It’s another reminder of the resilience of the Vietnamese during the war and worth a detour on the way to Cat Ba National Park.
Entry for Hospital Cave is 40,000 dong per person (just under $2 USD per person).
Read next: Phong Nha - Our favourite place in Vietnam
Cannon Fort for sunset
Just a short distance from Cat Ba town is Cannon Fort, a turret turned viewpoint with a bar!
It’s a short but windy and steep road to the top, where you’ll get a great view of the surrounding bays and islands.
The views are great, but it can get pretty busy and the crappy kids playground and dodgy picnic benches set by the bar slightly spoils what would be a stunning viewpoint that looks out to the east of Cat Ba Island.
There’s another viewpoint to the left that overlooks the harbour by Cat Ba Town and looks out to where the sun sets (you’ll pass some more creepy mannequins on the way there as well).
It’s a lovely place to watch the sunset, and while we prefer more natural spots overall, it’s a pretty good place to sit with a Beer Hanoi.
Entry is 40,000 dong per person (just under $2 USD) and 10,000 dong for parking a motorbike.
Treat yourself to a drink with a view at Mona
If the thought of going all the way up to Cannon Fort seems too much or you are up for more than one sunset spot, then head over to Mona on the main high street.
Whilst the view is quite a lot lower down, it is still exceptionally beautiful at sunset.
The food isn’t great (as with most of Cat Ba) but it’s the perfect spot for a sundowner, and the menu was extensive.
Getting to Cat Ba Island
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Halong Bay
This route is easy - you take the public ferry we recommend above, which takes one hour. Mini vans will be waiting for you when you get there, as are taxis and it’s a 30 minute drive to Cat Ba town. If you’re travelling with a motorbike you can bring it on the ferry.
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi
There are a couple of different ways to get to Cat Ba from Hanoi. You can take the train to Haiphong - which takes roughly 2.5 hours. Pha Binh port is a couple of kilometres from the train station and has ferry and speed boats making the short crossing to Cat Ba.
Note this is not a scenic ferry ride and you won’t see the karsts on this route. When you look online it says the journey takes one hour, but we are sure it was more like 30 minutes (not that we were timing it 😂). It is then 30 minutes further by road to Cat Ba town.
Alternatively - and the way we would recommend - you can take the bus to Dao Tuan Chan harbour and then take the beautiful ferry ride we mentioned above.
The bus journey takes 3.5 - 4 hours because they don’t use the highway. In a private car on the highway you could do this journey in just over two hours.
Where to stay in Cat Ba Island
As Cat Ba Island is a backpacker haunt the accommodation in town is all pretty basic. The only place that looks a step up is Cat Ba Sunrise Resort which at over $130 a night looked over priced to us.
If you’re on holiday you might just want to suck up the cost, although staying on Vanboi would be a cheaper and more exciting option!
Island getaway - Vanboi Ecolux Resort
You couldn’t get a better location Vanboi: paradise beach, stunning limestone karsts all around, blissfully quiet, and still water to swim in.
If you’re looking for a slightly comfier Robinson Crusoe experience in the middle of Halong Bay, this is it. The rooms looked comfy and clean and the view was out of this world.
However, it isn’t perfect. The rooms are a bit pricey for what they are (at $100 USD per night, you’d expect more). There’s no wifi, it’s cash only and you’ll have to have the food they serve as there’s nowhere else to go!
But who said paradise was easy…..
Budget - Phoenix Flower Hotel
There’s not much between all the places in Cat Ba Town, but Phoenix Flower has some of the nicest staff you’ll meet, going the extra yard to help with whatever you need.
The rooms are basic but large, as are the bathrooms - which are wet rooms where the shower is beside the toilet with no shower curtain, but the place is clean and has amenities like air-con, wifi and breakfast included (which is pretty good). Great if you’re looking to spend around $15 USD a night.
What to pack for Cat Ba Island
An important thing to have when kayaking around Lan Ha Bay. The Dry Bag will ensure none of your valueables will be damaged.
The perfect way to get shots and video without the fear of ruining your camera! We use the Hero5 Black which has a 12 megapixel camera that also shoots 4k video.
Vietnam Lonely Planet
The Vietnam Lonely Planet will help you plan the perfect trip. Well, if you haven’t quite found what you’re looking for from our website!
Universal plug & usb charger
This universal plug and usb charger has been a game changer for us! We can now charge everything we have with only 1 plug! No need to carry multiple adapters from now on as you just need the one and this gadget for your phones, iPads and anything else you travel with.
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Are you planning a trip to Cat Ba? Have you been and think we missed something? Let us know in the comments below!