The Ultimate Guide Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island: The Ultimate Guide

No visit to northern Vietnam is complete without a visit to the famous Ha Long Bay. Over 1,600 limestone islands covered in lush jungle create a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable natural habitat. Tour the area on a boat, paddle through caves and grottos in a kayak, and perhaps even go for a swim near a sandy beach area.

But Ha Long Bay isn’t the only gem here. Cat Ba Island is another option with access to Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay (the less-popular yet equally-stunning neighbor of Ha Long Bay).

Plus, Cat Ba Island had plenty to do: rent a motorbike to explore the many beaches, head out on the town for a night of food and entertainment, and our favorite, hike in Cat Ba National Park to get an incredible view of the island’s mountainous interior.

One of the countless rock formations in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

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So follow us and check out how you can visit Cat Ba Island, Vietnam while throwing in a tour to Lan Ha Bay, Cat Ba National Park, and bits of Ha Long Bay as well.

We made our way from the Old Quarter in Hanoi to Cat Ba Island, where we spent time touring both bays and exploring as much of Cat Ba Island as possible. So like most Off Path Travels posts, this is based on our first-hand experience, as well as in-depth research.

The open beach area in Cat Co Beach 1

And we’re going to be blunt at times. This ride wasn’t all roses and we aren’t here to paint some ficticious fairytale which you’ll never see in reality. See our Integrity Pledge for more information about our mission and promise to you.

The fact is that the tourism and growth in the entire Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay Area have resulted in some negative consequences to the water. At times we had tears in our eyes due to the beauty, and at other times, we had tears in our eyes due to the pollution.

Trust us when we say that this is all you need to know to visit this area in Vietnam, including Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Cat Ba Island.

The Cat Ba sign near the main pier and city center

A beautiful shot of a boat goign off into the distance in Lan Ha Bay

Kristina at the Ngu Lam Peak I lookout point

Connection to Vietnamese History and Culture

There are over 1,600 limestone islands in Ha Long Bay. Of course, they are visually stunning and that’s the main reason why most people visit. They’ve even been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The islands raise high above the water with steep limestone cliffs, undercut with caves and overhanging rock carved by millennia of ocean tides splashing against them. Many of the islands in Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay are essentially undisturbed by human activity and development, resulting in luscious jungle carpeted across the jagged peaks.

But the cultural importance to the Vietnamese people adds another dimension. The Ha Long Bay islands exemplify some of the deepest held beliefs in Vietnam, including a connection to dragons and their long history of warfare.

A large open bay with many islands as seen all over Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays in Vietnam

First, the islands in Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay are seen as a physical manifestation of a dragon flowing in and out of the water. And to the Vietnamese people, dragons signify a prosperous life, good luck, the power of the nation, and even strong rains required for a good harvest. The Viet people also hold a belief that they have descended from a dragon father (Lac Long Quan).

Second, the islands have been crucial to the physical defense of Vietnam. The people have faced many violent conflicts over their long history, and in turn, have developed a culture with close ties to warfare and strength. The islands have been a major influence on this aspect of Viet life as they have provided a physical barrier against many intrusions.

So when you visit, keep in mind that this area is just as culturally important as it is beautiful.

Some of the beautiful limestone formations seen all over Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam

Where Should You Visit: Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, or Cat Ba Island?

Most tourists choose to visit this area by taking an overnight boat cruise of Ha Long Bay. This is the easiest to get to from international destinations (usually through Hanoi) and there are PLENTY of options to do this tour.

If you choose to go this route, please look for companies which incorporate some sort of environmental awareness into their mission statement. More on why this is important later on in this post, but over 5 million visitors come to Ha Long Bay each year and the impact is evident.

We recommend Viator Tours if you want a guided tour. Viator has a wide variety of tours to choose from including overnight cruises in Ha Long Ba.

Intrepid Travel puts sustainability and responsible traveling first. Their tour will take you through a lot of the places we went while in Vietnam, starting off in the northern region with Hanoi, then Ha Long Bay, then south to the beach areas of Hue and Hoi An (our favorite area in all of Vietnam), capped off with time in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).

Part of the trail leading to Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba National Park

But that’s not the only way to experience Ha Long Bay. In fact, the islands in this area of Vietnam are incredibly expansive. There is no need to stay close to the busiest areas.

Instead, you can visit and explore the Lan Ha Bay Area. Some of the cruise ships which leave from the Ha Long Bay area will also make their way to Ha Long Bay. This is usually on excursions lasting three nights or more. Meaning you will be isolated to a relatively small boat for a period of days, which might be a bit much. These aren’t massive Carnival cruise ships; they’re usually small wooden boats with a couple sun decks, a dining area, and the rooms.

While we do enjoy relaxation at times, we also enjoy our freedom. We wanted to see more isolated parts of the islands without being stuck on a small boat for too long.

And that’s why we chose to visit Cat Ba Island. It is located close to both bays, offers a lot of sightseeing options, and has an incredible national park on the island.

Kristina on the Cat Ba Ventures boat tour

Getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi

Like anywhere in the world, there are several options for getting to Cat Ba Island.

By Motorbike or Car: If you’ve decided to rent or buy a motorbike to tour Vietnam (or you’re driving a car), you can easily get to Cat Ba Island. And having the transportation on the island will be helpful. Make your way to Tuan Chau Harbour. This will take you across the bay to Cat Ba Island and will leave you on the northern side of the island. You’ll likely then want to travel the length of the island to get to the city center area on the south side. There may be extra charges for bringing across a motorbike or vehicle to Cat Ba.

By Air: There is no airfield on Cat Ba Island. Most people fly into Hanoi’s large, international airport then take a bus/ferry/bus combination to Cat Ba Island (described below). You can also fly into Hai Phong’s smaller airport, then take a taxi to the Ben pha Got ferry terminal, then across to Cat Ba, and a bus to the city center. The ferry shouldn’t cost more than $5 USD. Same for the bus ride.

Kristina on the bus getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi

By Transportation Agency (what we did): The most popular way for budget travelers to get to Cat Ba Islands from Hanoi is using a combination of a bus, then a short ferry, then another bus.

After much thought and research, we found that hiring a transportation agency was the best and cheapest method of getting to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. And we got a much better price (and shorter transportation time) by purchasing all three (bus/ferry/bus) from one agency who organizes the transportation on your behalf.

Tip: Bookaway is our go-to site for booking transportation. They have everything from trains to buses to ferries. And you can book online using your favorite travel credit card to get those rewards points!

After reading reviews for multiple agencies, we went with Cat Ba Express and are very glad we did! It cost just $14 USD per person to go from Hanoi’s Old Quarter to your Cat Ba town or about $26 USD round-trip (in 2019). They pick you up and drop you off at your hotel and give you snacks. SOLD!

Book your Hanoi to Cat Ba Island transfer now >

They’ll pick you up in a nice, air-conditioned bus from your hotel or rental in Hanoi. Then drive 2-hours south to the coastline near Hai Phong where you take a brief 8-minute ferry to Cat Ba Island. On Cat Ba Island, they have a bus waiting for you, taking you to your hotel in town in less than 40 minutes. All of the representatives speak English and were incredibly accommodating. Overall, it was a very comfortable and pleasant experience and a great value for the price.

The bus getting to Cat Ba from Hanoi

Island Time (Or So We Thought) – When to Visit Cat Ba

After spending some time in the craziness of Hanoi, we were ready to slow things down and head to the coastline. We are big fans of island time… Run behind by ten minutes? Who cares? Little did we know that things would hardly slow down at all.

When we arrived in Cat Ba Island and hopped off the bus, it became clear that the quiet island town we had expected was actually a busy little area.

As we arrived in early June, the Vietnamese children had just been let out of school for summer break and people flocked to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. It was fairly crowded and we were told that it stays like that for most of the summer. Cat Ba Island is a major domestic attraction.

During the winter, on the other hand, things slow down quite dramatically. Some hotels and restaurants even close shop. But the air and water can be a bit chilly and the beaches aren’t quite as comfortable. Highs during the day can be in the upper 60°’s F (20° C), although it has been warmer recently.

Some of the steep steps and guardrails in Cat Ba National Park

Where to Stay in Cat Ba

So our arrival without hotel reservations led to a bit of a challenge. We opted to stay in the main area of Cat Ba which is essentially one block of hotels lining the water and one horseshoe shaped road. The Cho den Cat Ba (small night market – nothing special) essentially marks the heart of the city area. We recommend staying near here unless you want to be more isolated.

It is more touristy than other areas, but it also is where you can easily walk around to different restaurants, find plenty of tour operators, and is closest to most of the beach areas. If you stay outside of here, you can expect to need a motorbike to get around regularly and be a good distance from most of the action.

A couple of our top hotel picks couldn’t host us for the entire stay. We originally planned on staying at Cat Ba Dream Hotel, which has ocean views and is a good overall value.We viewed the room and would have stayed, but they were fully booked on one night of our stay. Our second choice was Cat Ba Ocean View Hotel, but we found that the rooms were less pleasing in person due to a fairly foul odor and decided against staying there..

One of the beach areas we stopped at during our cruise ship tour of Ha Long Bay near Cat Ba Island

Kristina hanging out by Cat Co Beach 1 in Cat Ba, Vietnam

There are a LOT of hotels and hostels near the main town on the island, so even with it being busy, we still had plenty of options. A bit of an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

Because everything was pretty much booked, we ended up at Trang Toan Hotel. It doesn’t have a view of the water, but the rooms were comfortable, the hosts were generous, and it fit our needs. If you like to keep the hotel costs low, this is a good option.

Other popular places to stay in Cat Ba include the Secret Garden Hostel (highly reviewed hostel with lovely gardens onsite), CatBa Lucky Family Hotel (our top choice behind Cat Ba Dream Hotel and Trang Toan), and Central Backpackers Hostel (away from the center area but very popular).

If you’re interested in higher-end accommodations with a spa, check out Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa. Just understand that there may be some construction going on (see beach area below for more on the construction in mid 2019).

Click here to check availability on Cat Ba Island.

Kayaking in a small grotto near Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Costs in Cat Ba Island

From an international perspective, things are quite cheap in Vietnam as a whole. And there was little difference on Cat Ba, other than the fact that a lot of places are full-on tourist traps. After some bargaining and paying onsite in cash, we got our hotel cost down to 300,000 VND per night (less than $14 USD). You can usually expect to pay anywhere from $15 USD to $30 USD per night depending on location and amenities.

Meal prices can fluctuate wildly, with the hottest tourist spots charging upwards of 150,000 to 250,000 VND per meal ($6.50 to $11 USD). But you can generally find some lower priced foods (especially vegetarian options) for around 100,000 VND or less per plate ($4.30 USD). Street food isn’t as common in Cat Ba as it is in other parts of Vietnam, but there are a few stalls which will be even cheaper.

The tour prices can also fluctuate. But generally, you get what you pay for. The cheapest options will be the shortest and least comfortable. Here, we ended up going with one of the most expensive options for a boat tour of Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay ($30 USD per person). But we found that it paid off.

The motorbike (scooter) rentals available in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Renting a Scooter in Cat Ba

After our hotel fiasco, we woke up early the next morning and rented a moped for 80,000 VND ($3.50 USD) to explore the beaches and the Cat Ba National Park. The biggest scooter rental place is located just across the road from Catba Dream Hotel. You won’t have any trouble spotting them.

As of mid 2019 during the tourist season, it was 60,000 VND for half day and 80,000 VND for a whole day. This seemed to be a fairly fixed price that most people told us (although some did try to shoot for the stars and charge almost double that). Inspect your bike carefully before taking off.

Check the tires, see if you can get one with gas in it, and if you’re going to use it at night (not recommended) make sure the lights are working. Siphoning gas can be a bit of an issue too, so fill up in the morning rather than the night before if you do a multi-day rental.

If you need gas/petrol, avoid the small roadside places that resell it from plastic containers. The main gas station is located here and will give you the best price. Make sure the pump shows zeros before they start pumping.

Our scooter rental was a blast and we do recommend it. Driving in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart, however, and it’s best to have scooter or motorcycle experience. Our motorbike day was an adventure-filled with some disappointment and some of the best views of our lives.

The windy mountain road leading away from the Cat Ba Island city center and to the Cat Ba National Park and the many caves to visit

Things to See: Beaches

There are four main beaches close to Cat Ba central area. There are three beaches on the southeast side of the southernmost point of the island. These are numbered: Cat Co Beach 1, 2, and 3 (technically Bãi tắm Cát Cò 1, 2, & 3). The fourth beach is a bit to the west of the central area and is called Tung Thu Beach.

We walked to Tung Thu Beach our first evening since it’s western facing and is a good place for sunset. It is a large beach with a sandy area, a giant jungle-gym in the water for kids, and a couple restaurants and bars. It can transform into a bit of a party scene at times, especially in late afternoon, but it’s a lot of fun.

Tung Thu Beach on Cat Ba Island, complete with large aquatic playground for the kids and tons of action onshore for adults

After renting our scooter the next morning, we first set off to check out Bãi tắm Cát Cò 3. It is the most southern beach out of 1, 2, & 3. We arrived and found that part of the large resort here was under construction. But the main beach area, including a large sandy area, a couple long rows of umbrellas/palapas, and a large bar/restaurant were still open and thriving.

You can rent a 2-person palapa for 100,000 VND ($4.30 USD), an hour-long kayak for 220,000 VND ($9.50 USD), or inner tubes for 50,000 VND ($2.15 USD). The bar’s beers were a bit expensive compared to in town, but still very cheap (around 50,000 VND or $2.15 USD). While we wanted to sit down and enjoy the inviting area, we decided to keep exploring. But Cat Co Beach 3 is where we would hang out during the day if we went back for some beach time.

Some of the palapas for rent on Cat Co Beach 1 in Cat Ba

The kayaks for rent on Cat Co Beach 1 in Cat Ba Island

We went to Bãi tắm Cát Cò 1 next, which is actually between beaches 2 and 3, a bit confusing. Cat Co Beach 3 is the most southern and farthest from town, then beach 1 to the north of that, and finally beach 3 to the north of that (closest to town). Unfortunately, Cat Co Beach 1 was under construction during our visit.

One one side of Cat Co Beach 1 sits Cat Ba Island Resort & Spa which looked beautiful and has a large pool with a slide. But on the other side, the beach area is currently limited to a small slice of sand due to the construction. You can still visit and hang out, but we suggest going to Cat Co Beach 3 instead for the meantime. The construction was in fairly early stages in mid-2019, so I’d say it might be until at least mid-2020 until in opens back up in full.

We wanted to see Cat Co Beach 2 (the northernmost one closest to town), but access to it was completely closed due to construction. They are building two major resorts here. Cat Ba is growing rapidly! It’s the place to be.

If you are heading here in 2019 or early 2020, you should probably go to beach 3 or Tung Thu Beach.

Some of the construction going on in Cat Co Beach 2 on Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba National Park: Our Favorite Aspect of the Area

After a bit of disappointment with the beaches, we drove inland to Cat Ba National Park. It is about 8 miles (13 km) from the city center and takes about 25-30 minutes to drive here. The road is a bit steep and windy at points – after all, it is basically a mountain pass – but generally it’s in fairly good condition.

Hiking in Cat Ba National Park was my favorite part of all of Cat Ba Island, including the boat cruise. I may be a bit biased coming from the mountains of Colorado and loving hiking. But the views were incredible. And the hike went through a lovely forest full of many different types of bushes, trees, vines, and animals.

The entrance sign at Cat Ba National Park

After reaching the parking area, you can pay 5,000 VND (about $0.25 USD) to park in front of the gates. Or you can park for “free” across the street at one of the small vendors. They will expect you to buy something though, perhaps a bottle of water.

Pay the entrance fee to Cat Ba National Park (80,000 VND or $3.45 USD per person), and head in through the park gates.

TAKE A PICTURE OF THE MAP! We saw countless people lost on the trails. They zigzag over one another and it’s not as simple as many trails are. In fact, we suggest tracking your location with a GPS app such as Motion-X GPS or Gaia GPS.

The map of the Cat Ba National Park trails

Kristina on some of the many steps in Cat Ba National Park's trail system

The hike is a pretty intense, steep hike up to the lookout areas. But the path has been constructed out of concrete and stone steps, so it’s not too incredibly dangerous. The hike, although challenging, is also quite brief. But the heat and humidity had us sweating like never before. If you visit in winter, the temperature would be much more tolerable, of course.

After hiking for about 45 minutes to cover 1 mile (1.6 km), we reached the first major lookout area: Ngu Lam Peak I.

Kristina and Michael hot and sweaty after hiking up to the lookout hut in Cat Ba National Park

It was worth it. The views from the lookout hut on top of Ngu Lam Peak are stunning. You sit in a well-constructed lookout point with a second story and handrails, providing an excellent view of all around. Mountains covered in thick, green jungle surround you. The steep limestone rock faces are hidden in the dense vegetation.

We sat here with a small handful of other tourists enjoying the sights for a solid 20 minutes. It was pure ecstasy.

Daylight was fading at that point, so it was time for us to race down to the bottom and exit before the gates locked at 6 pm. After a drive back to the central Cat Ba area, we booked our boat tour for the next day, ate dinner, and called it a night.

The stunning view from the Ngu Lam Peak

Boat Tour of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay

The next day, we took a full-day boat tour going into Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay and it was beautiful! We set out into the bays in the morning, explored a fishing village, went kayaking into secluded bays and caves, had a traditional Vietnamese lunch on board, stopped for a dip at a hidden beach, and then watched the sunset from the lounge chair deck on our way back to town.

A tour of the bays is THE thing to do when you’re in Cat Ba. There are multiple tour agencies offering pretty much the same package, with some stopping at the popular Monkey Island. Here are some full-day boat tours of Lan Ha Bay departing from Cat Ba that you can book in advance:

There are also lots of full-day and overnight tours of Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay or you can just book in person at one of the many tour offices once you arrive in town.

We went with Cat Ba Ventures because they claimed to avoid the most crowded areas, put together an excellent lunch with vegan and vegetarian options for Kristina, and they don’t dump waste or trash into the water.

But, we also seriously considered the full-day boat tour offered by Cat Ba Express. It’s the same company we used for transportation to the island and it was about $5 USD cheaper. I think we ended up choosing the other company because they had more reviews, but in all honesty, it’s probably the exact same tour.

Cat Ba Ventures were amazingly responsive while making reservations. And the guides were awesome. It cost around $30 USD per person, which is higher than most operations which go as low as $15 USD. But you really do get what you pay for.

Another option we considered was to go with EcoFriendly Vietnam. But these are either privately-chartered or overnight-only, so we opted for the day trip with Cat Ba Ventures instead.

The bus used by Cat Ba Ventures to get from the city center to the dock for our boat tour of Lan Ha Bay

Regardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask as many questions as you can to understand what you’re getting. Universal travel advice. Think of it like buying a car – you need to know what you’re getting into. You’ve traveled far to get here and you don’t want to be disappointed. Is transportation included to the dock? Is there food served? Water? How long does the tour last? Will you go kayaking? Visit any markets or farms? And anything else you can think of!

We arrived at 8 am at the main office, then took a small bus over to the dock area. We then boarded our wooden boat for the day, complete with a large dining area tucked underneath a sunroom-style platform on top. Then set off into the bays.

Immediately, we understood why everyone says you have to visit Ha Long Bay (or Lan Ha Bay). It is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The Hawaiian islands inspired us in one way, the islands in Thailand are beautiful, but this was another dimension.

Rock faces jet out of the water, rising steeply into the air. Green jungle covers each little island where the rock can support life. Birds swirl around the air above. Floating villages are scattered about. We weave in and out of other cruise ships, fishing boats, and random vessels. It is magical.

Kristina enjoying the shaded area of the upper deck on our tour of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Pollution and Sustainability

The day was full of activities. First, a tour of a floating fishing village. Which to be honest, was a bit disappointing. As a matter of fact, the water in this area is overall disappointing. And made us quite sad at times.

While the islands are basically untouched by human civilization and development, the water tells another story.

Some of the bubbling water floating past the ship in Ha Long Bay

Bubbly slicks of oil and waste (yes, that type of waste… from humans) can be seen all over the water’s surface. The visibility is poor. Snorkeling and scuba diving are essentially non-existent due to the lack of marine life. Anything we thought was marine life ended up being some type of floating plastic. While there may be worse areas in the world, this area is no longer untouched and pristine.

In fact, there is very little local fishing anymore. Big fish are essentially nonexistent and most fisherman have to travel a good distance away from the main bays to even find small fish. This has been an issue for years and the local regulations are trying to step up to make it better, but they haven’t really solved the problem yet.

Due to pollution and poor water conditions, the marine life is quite limited. This comes from the massive industrial operations happening on the mainland, such as coal, and also from the incredible amounts of tourists visiting Ha Long Bay. On top of that, the new regulatory efforts (requiring separate tanks for waste and oil) seem to only be utilized while under inspection (read more about these issues here).

Worst of all, there have been recent reports of clean-up efforts running into serious problems and not being allowed to continue their work. We struggled with a lot of these issues in writing this post and covering this area. It is beautiful, but there is a lot of work to be done to allow sustainable tourism without destroying the environment.

The floating fishing village we stopped at on our tour of Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam

Floating Fishing Village

So the fishing village – to us – was both very interesting to see in-person (imagine living on a floating house!) and quite sad due the current state of their fishing industry. It is simply a means for the local fisherman to continue their ancestral career, but in a much different manner due to the new man-made conditions.

Since they can’t catch large fish anymore, they build these floating villages as fish farms. They buy what small fish the fisherman can catch (which may be near or far), then turn them into a chum-like paste through a large meat grinder, and feed it to the fish in the enclosed spaces. The fish can live in these conditions for years on end before growing to a size worth selling – most often to Chinese suppliers.

Okay, sorry for the reality check and big time bummer. But I hope you can understand our need to tell the world about this.

Kristina walking the narrow platforms on the floating fishing village in Vietnam

Beach Time and Lunch

After getting back on the boat and touring around for a bit, we stopped at one of the many islands which had a nice sandy beach area. Thankfully our tour lined up well with low tide and the beach was visible. During high tide, you likely won’t be able to see any beaches.

Our boat – as said before – was nice because it went to the less touristy spots. But the water really wasn’t much better. I considered going in the water, but right as I thought about it, another large, bubbly oil slick and patch of waste floated in our direction. We opted for hanging out on the boat instead.

Most everyone else did go for a swim, so don’t let our bashfulness hold you back. Just also don’t be disillusioned. Over 5 million tourists come to Ha Long Bay each year. The waste management systems can only handle about 40% of these visitors at full capacity.

Then we were served lunch onboard. It was a wide variety of food and they offered full vegetarian options, as well as the more seafood-based ones for those who wanted it.

The first swimming beach we stopped at during our tour of Lan Ha Bay

One of the typical ships used for touring the many bays near Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay

Kayaking Through Caves and Grottos

Up next was a bit of kayaking. And it was a blast. Easily my favorite part of the Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay cruise from Cat Ba Island.

The low tide came in handy again. We were able to kayak into a couple different coves which are accessible through low-hanging cave openings. They close up during high tide.

As we would paddle gently into the darkness of the shallow cave, we could hear the chirping of bats above us and the rushing of water below. Movement in the air and water all around. The world is alive and so are we.

Getting on the surface-level was also an excellent way to understand the local flora from a new perspective. We glided past the rocks and vegetation of the islands up close and in person.

We cruised around in the kayaks for about 45 minutes, then went back on the boat.

Kayaking into a small cave with a few bats inside during our tour of Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island

Heading Back to Cat Ba

The boat ride back was beautiful. Our tour lasted well into the late afternoon so the sun began to set as we moved straight toward it. We stopped briefly at one more swimming spot, but the beach was beginning to be covered by the rising tide.

A few people jumped in for a quick dip, then we went back to the dock. After the short bus ride back to the central Cat Ba area, we went back to the hotel for a shower, then out for a night of fun.

Would we do this tour again right now? Probably not. But we are hopeful that if tourists continue to express their concern for the local environment, the proper changes will be made and a more sustainable approach to the tourism industry here could thrive – in peace with the stunning nature which brings the people here.

The view from the upper deck of our cruise ship in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Other Things to Do in Cat Ba Island

One part you may see that’s missing from our boat tour is Monkey Island. This island is quite close to Cat Ba and is one of the biggest tourism attractions here.

But our guides (Cat Ba Ventures) and many others have warned us about how Monkey Island is actually quite a risk. And not so environmentally-friendly.

The monkeys living here are very used to tourists, who often feed them. As a result, the monkeys regularly come after tourists and can become quite aggressive. They have been known to bite tourists on a fairly regular basis. And they are not native to the area. As they spread, the habitat loses its natural ecosystem and becomes invaded by the primate population.

Another major attraction we did not go to is the Cat Ba Cannon Fort. Located fairly close to the central area, this place is full of Vietnam War trenches and large cannon guns used in battle. The views are best during sunrise or sunset and you can learn a lot about the history of the fort here.

There are multiple caves you can explore on Cat Ba Island as well. Two of the most popular caves in Cat Ba are Trung Trang Cave and Hospital Cave. Both are between the main area of town and the Cat Ba National Park. Trung Trang seems to be the one to go to.

A view from the top of Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba National Park, Vietnam

Where to Eat on Cat Ba Island

The specialty all over Cat Ba Island is seafood, with many places having aquariums holding live fish and seafood of all type right in front of their restaurant. There are quite a few establishments near the city center, but whenever we asked locals for recommendations, they told us to go outside of town. You’ll be overpaying and underwhelmed at most in town. Cat Ba is NOT a foodie’s dream.

We heard excellent things about Buddha Belly Vegetarian Restaurant which is more geared toward western tourists and near the small reservoir/lake just west of town. 25 Klub is another popular choice for tourists that seems to escape the main tourist trap vibe.

Phi Nhung Quantizing is a roadside and waterfront restaurant that a lot of people spoke highly of. Phuong Nhung Restaurant is another popular option with a wide variety of food.

If you’re looking for nightlife fun, head to Oasis Bar & Restaurant for pool tables and (somewhat) cheap drinks. But if you really want to get in on the fun and do some karaoke in a club-like setting, then Marigold Pub is the place to go. The light shows seemed intense and the crowds were always raging.

The floating restaurants are another major attraction in Cat Ba. Just be warned that the reviews for most of them are horrendous. Cat Ba Floating Restaurant seems to be the most liked. There are small – and loud, diesel – boats ferrying people from the main dock to the restaurants all throughout the evening. You can hear them all over town.

Kristina enjoying the views on our boat tour from Cat Ba Island

General Reflections from Our Visit to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

If you’ve read this all, then you know we went through some serious ups and downs during this visit. I wish we could give you a whole-hearted recommendation to visit Cat Ba Island or even Ha Long Bay immediately, but we have some reservations.

Yes, the islands are stunning. You won’t see anything like this on earth. And the Cat Ba National Park is an amazing display of island nature with a wonderful hiking path and incredible views.

Michael hanging out by the top of the steps on Cat Co Beach 1 - construction zone to the left and the CatBa Island Resort to the right

But Cat Ba Island left a fairly bad taste in our mouths. We were treated quite poorly by one hotel, found the food to be lacking, and found that it was full of construction in some of the most beautiful parts of the island.

But most importantly, concerns for the water quality are at the front of our minds. Ha Long Bay can’t continue to withstand the waste from the millions of visitors it receives. The pollution coming from oil and waste being directly dumped into the ocean needs to come to a halt.

In time, we are hopeful that the construction on Cat Ba Island will wrap up – and the environmental destruction occurring to the beautiful Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays will cease happening.

So if you decide to visit, please try to pick the most aware companies you can and do your best to voice concerns you may have.

Check out our other posts on Vietnam:

Have you visited beautiful areas of the world that crushed you? One of our favorite bloggers mentioned some serious issues in Peru, which is high on our to-do list but we were happy to know about.

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All you need to know to visit Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Where to stay, things to do, how to get there, and more!

Everything you need to know to visit Cat Ba Island, Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay and more in Vietnam. Getting to Cat Ba, where to stay, and things to do.

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