Cat Ba Island is an awesome place to hike, enjoy beaches, and take boat rides in the fabulous Lan Ha Bay. I mean, look:
Lan Ha Bay has the same geography features as the more famous Ha Long Bay. The two bays are simply divided by an imaginary line due to political oversight. Lan Ha has fewer tourists than Ha Long, but it can still be crowded with visitors.
So, hikes, beaches, and boat rides… here are a few of our favorites based on for from Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba National Park (on the main island)
This park is a World Heritage Site designated as a biosphere reserve, and it’s gorgeous. The park covers part of the main island, and also many rock islands in Lan Ha Bay.
Cat Ba is home to the critically endangered white-haired langur. There are about 65 of these monkeys left on the planet and they are all found here. We didn’t see any, but maybe you’ll get lucky.
We hiked up to Ngu Lam Peak on the main island for stunning views of the jungle. The trail is mostly stone steps carved into the mountainside, but there are a few places to scramble – especially near the top. I could imagine it’s really slippery when it rains, so this isn’t one for flip flops. Bring mosquito spray or cover your skin, and bring plenty of water.
We had most of the trail to ourselves – and most of our time at the top we enjoyed alone, too. I was drenched in sweat by the time we got to the peak, and ripped off my shirt in a victory pose – with a post-breast cancer gratitude to be alive, still sober (nine years, two-plus months), and still healthy enough to accomplish this hike, even though it was easy.
I would not encourage women to go topless here. It would be considered offensive, and it might even be illegal. In my case, I no longer have nipples, and there was no around. I covered my scars in the picture because some people might be disturbed, and I don’t want to force anyone to look. (Thanks to Tedly for this quick shot.)
Admission to this trail is $3.50, and it includes a stroll down a long cave a kilometer down the road. You must enter both by 4:30 p.m. Parking at each site for a motorbike is $.20 (yes, 20 cents).
There are other hiking trails and park tours visitors can take – but for some of those you need a guide and admission costs more. The official park website is here.
Cannon Fort: “One of the best views in Vietnam”
Cannon Fort is a historic site. It’s where Japanese installed guns in World War II, and the French later used the site during its imperial dominance over Vietnam. Strategically, its a great lookout.
For one of the best views in Vietnam – no, we’re not kidding – head to Cannon Fort where there are astounding panoramas of Cat Ba Island’s jungle-clad hills rolling down to colourful tangles of fishing boats in the harbour and out to the karst-punctuated sea beyond.– Lonely Planet
This exact view as described by Lonely Planet was not available during our visit in late May 2019. In fact, the whole site was closed, and there was no explanation in English. There were billboards that seemed to advertise in Vietnamese a soon-to-be hotel and casino, and we saw construction workers who wore shirts with the same developer’s logo we saw on the billboard.
That’s all I know about that specific spot, but there are unofficial paths with similar views. The paths start on the left before the guard house at the Cannon Fort gate and lead to views like these:
To get to the Cannon Fort road, walk up a large hill behind the town. The road is well paved. Wear pants. The unofficial paths are a bit overgrown, and many mosquitoes were happy I wore shorts. Hopefully the site will be reopened by the time you get there.
Yes, that’s the name of it – Beach 1. Get there by the electric green cart taxi from the center of town for about $.45 (yes, 45 cents).
Go at low tide, because the beach is flat and nearly disappears when the tide comes in. The sand is damp and packed with a lot of shells. There is one area to buy drinks or arrange tours from Beach 1, and there is a nominal fee for the umbrellas and chairs – something like $1.50.
Beach 2 is connected to Beach 1 by a walkway around some cliffs. It’s well-paved path with railings and wide landings for beautiful viewpoints.
Beach 2 is on higher ground so this one is good for anytime. The sand here is white and puffy, like confectioners sugar. Eating and drinking on the beach is prohibited (except for water).
There is one restaurant set back from the beach with lounge chair rentals, but this is rather expensive for Vietnam. A lounge chair is the equivalent of about $4.50, and the restaurant prices were about double the local average.
And remember, in Vietnam, locals flock to the sea starting around 4:00 p.m., so it can get quite crowded at these small beaches.
An official boat tour of Lan Ha Bay is easy to find – they are sold everywhere so shop around for an itinerary that meets your needs.
We used one arranged by our Airbnb host, and it was a great day. I mean, really, how can you not have a great day looking at these stunning views from the water?
If there was any downside, it was that we had to share the boat with about 40 people. But Lan Ha Bay is much less crowded than neighboring Ha Long Bay, where dozens of boats each packed with dozens of people are the norm.
We paid $16.50 each for tickets. The price covered transportation to and from our hotel to the ferry dock, park admission fees, and lunch. It was a full day trip: swimming at a beach off the beaten path; a tour of the bay; a lunch stop; more bay cruising; swimming and snorkeling at Monkey Island, where the monkeys are quite mischievous; a final stop at a fishing village to see how locals live and work.
Another boat trip we took was in the Cat Ba bay at night, on an old jalopy of a boat with an experienced and able older captain. We like to spread the love to the little guy instead of the giant tour companies.
The captain approached us as we walked along the waterfront and offered his night ride around the bay for the equivalent of $8.75. We didn’t even haggle. We’re budget travelers, but we’re not cheap.
I’m sure you could stroll the waterfront and find our fisherman – or another – to support. The ride itself was awesome. It was only around the bay, but the giant unlit karst formations against the twinkling lights of the town and the lapping bay water, and the chugging (cough cough) boat, were all an experience to remember.
A place to visit now
Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay, like most other places in Vietnam we have seen, are thriving with a relatively new tourism industry. Hotels are being built all over Cat Ba town, and every year more tourists seek out Lan Ha Bay and its more-crowded sister, Ha Long Bay.
If you have this area on your bucket list and prefer places without throngs of crowds, try to get here sooner rather than later because more development is definitely going to happen.