A small island just off the North West coast, Cat Ba is one of our favourite places in Vietnam. Most people just visit to explore Lan Ha Bay, a budget friendly alternative to Halong Bay. But with so many awesome things to do in Cat Ba Island we recommend you stay a while.
Dominating the Gulf of Tonkin, Cat Ba is the largest of 367 islands making up the Cat Ba Archipelago. And it is beautiful. The topography is made up of sheltered bays dotted along sweeping coastlines with lush green forest flowing over steep hills and valleys.
Cat Ba Island Vietnam
Between the expansive jungle of Cat Ba National Park, the gorgeous sandy beaches and more adventure activities than you can shake a stick at, it can actually be quite difficult to decide on what to do in Cat Ba.
But don’t worry, we’re going to give you all the information you need to plan an unforgettable trip to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Including the best time to go, what to pack, how to get to Cat Ba Island and the best Cat Ba accommodation.
How To Get Around Cat Ba
Before we dive into all the awesome things to do in Cat Ba Island, I need to tell you that the best way of exploring it is by hiring a motorbike. If you haven’t hired a motorbike in South East Asia before, Cat Ba is good place to start.
There aren’t many roads so it would be quite difficult to get lost. And the roads are quiet, save for the odd coach. They’re not in the best condition but fine if you pay attention, there’s just quite a few pot holes. Oh and some goats on the roads you need to watch out for.
You can rent a automatic motorbike for around 100,000 VND ($4.50USD/£3.50GBP) easily from most hotels in Cat Ba Town. Helmets are provided and the bikes are in pretty good condition. The fuel for the day cost us roughly 60,000 VND ($2.60USD/£2.00GBP).
Some of the inclines on the roads in Cat Ba are quite steep at times. So if there is going to be more than one of you on the bike, opt for a larger engine. We went with 145cc rather than a 115cc and were glad we did because we saw a few people struggling.
Top Tip: It’s cheaper to buy fuel from the petrol station in Cat Ba town, rather than the place you rent it from.
Things To Do in Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba National Park Hike
Top of the list for things to do in Cat Ba Island. The thick green jungle of Cat Ba National Park covers almost half of the entire island. It was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2004. And amongst many other wildlife is home to the endangered Cat Ba Langur.
If you’ve never heard of the Cat Ba Langur before, it’s a small monkey. They have golden hair and a really long tail. But you would have to be very lucky to see one because there are only around 60 of them remaining. Making them the world’s most endangered primates.
If you want to do a Cat Ba National Park hike there are a couple of options. The first one is take a short independent Cat Ba hike to Ngu Lam Peak. It is 3.6km and depending on your fitness levels should take around 45 minutes up and 30 minutes down.
The entrance fee to Cat Ba National Park is 40,000 VND ($1.75USD/£1.35GBP). The start of the trail is obvious and paths are clearly marked so don’t need a guide for the short trek. Cat Ba National Park opens at 8am and you should go early to beat the heat and crowds.
Top Tip: It is incredibly humid so make sure you take plenty of water and mosquito repellent with you.
If you are wanting to explore further afield you should hire a guide from the ranger station or visit via a tour agency. Not so much in case you get lost but because much of the Vietnamese countryside is still contaminated with unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam war.
Cat Ba Beach
If you hire a motorbike you can find a few off the beaten track beaches in Cat Ba. But other than that, the main ones are located at the South of the island near Cat Ba town. Unimaginatively, they are called Cat Ba beach 1, 2, & 3.
Unfortunately are all attached to hotels and resorts so you will have to pay for parking if you arrive by motorbike. However it did only cost us 9,000 VND ($0.40USD/£0.30GBP). And it means you’re never far away from amenities with this ‘things to do in Cat Ba’ option.
There’s a walkway that joins the largest Cat Ba Beach 1 with smaller Cat Ba Beach 3 and makes for a nice stroll. Don’t ask us why, but Cat Ba beaches are not in a linear order. Our favourite was Cat Ba beach 2, it’s quieter so perfect for a spot of swimming and an afternoon nap if that is on your list of what to do in Cat Ba.
Lan Ha Bay Cruise
The striking jagged limestone rock formations protruding dramatically from the still, emerald-green waters are otherworldly. Like a postcard from another planet. Of all the things to do in Cat Ba Island, make exploring Lan Ha Bay from the water a priority.
Cruising the hundreds of islets and secluded beaches in Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba island is a great alternative to the more expensive prices of a Halong Bay boat tour. Being neighbouring bays, there really is little difference in the landscape.
There are different options for taking a Lan Ha Bay cruise. You can choose 2 days/1 night or 3 days/2 nights, sleeping out on the water amidst the incredible sunrises and sunsets. Or you can just opt for a single day Lan Ha Bay Cruise. Read about our Lan Ha Bay day trip experience here.
Cat Ba Hospital Cave
If you are interested in Vietnamese history, particularly around the Vietnam War then you will find a trip to the Hospital Cave interesting. It’s not at all enjoyable, in the sense that it quite literally was a hospital used to treat the wounded for over 10 years, right up to 1975.
There’s no natural light so it is dark, damp and depressing. But even with it’s bleakness, the fact that a three story complex, with a cinema and swimming pool, was built inside a cave is impressive. The creepy mannequin soldiers that have been added are not.
It’s one of the quicker things to do in Cat Ba Island. You’ll probably be in there less than 30 minutes, as I say it’s pretty miserable. It opens at 7am and is around 10km from Cat Ba town. Entrance price is 40,000 VND ($1.75USD/£1.35GBP) and 10,000 VND ($0.45USD/£0.35GBP) to park.
There isn’t any information there so if you want to learn more about the history of Cat Ba Island in the Vietnam war you will need to hire a local guide. In peak season there are usually some knocking around but in low season it’s best to organise one beforehand in Cat Ba town.
Trung Trang Cave
Located in Trung Trang Valley about 15km north of Cat Ba town, Trung Trang cave is one of the more unique and maybe slightly creepy things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Known locally as ‘gold treasure’, Trung Trang Cave is around 300m in size.
The thousands upon thousands of natural stalactites make for an impressive sight. But with it’s pitch black ecosystem and cave dwelling critters, Trung Trang Cave is definitely not one for the feint hearted.
You get free entrance with a Cat Ba National Park entry ticket and can go in there and explore independently. Just make sure someone knows where you are and that you have batteries in your head torch.
Out of Town Lunches
Having tried some incredible food on our travels around Vietnam, we were quite disappointed with what was on offer in Cat Ba town. Much of it seemed to cater for unadventurous Western tourists. But we did find plenty places out of town with incredible food.
If you hop on your motorbike and head north towards one of the ports you’ll find independent restaurants attached to the fish and oyster farms. We had some beautiful lunches of freshly caught fish and shrimp salads up that way. Definitely one of the great things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.
An isolated area at the heart of the island, if you are planning on hiring a motorbike, Butterfly Valley or Liên Minh is well worth a mention for things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. And there are a few butterflies, just don’t expect the place to be inundated with them.
The roads are quite narrow and there’s quite a few twists and turns so do be careful on route. It a great place for having a little wander while taking in the lush greenery of Cat Ba Island. However the main reason people head that way is for the routes in the crags…
Cat Ba Island Activities
Cat Ba Rock Climbing
Owing to the abundance of overhung and steep limestone rocks, Butterfly Valley is is where to come for adventurous things to do in Cat Ba. It’s a playground for rock climbers. If you are an experienced climber, you can simply buy a permit, rent some gear if you don’t have yours with you and off you go.
The daily permits are around 60,000 VND ($2.60USD/£2.00GBP) and you can purchase them from The Hive climbing centre in Butterfly Valley or the Asia Outdoors office in Cat Ba town. Or if you’re more of a novice or first timer you can head out onto the crags with a guide.
Cat Ba Kayaking
If you are heading out on a Lan Ha Bay cruise, it’s likely that your tour package with include an option of kayaking. For some of the more secluded parts of Lan Ha Bay, going by kayak is the only way to reach them.
You can however opt to head out kayaking as a separate Cat Ba Island activity, either with a guide as part of a half or full day kayaking package or independently. If you prefer to head out on your own, you can just hire a kayak for the day from one of the tour companies in Cat Ba town.
Although the waters are very calm, it should go without saying, don’t opt for this if you are not a confident swimmer. Take a dry bag and just use Maps.Me to plan your route. But be sure not to miss the floating villages and secluded beaches of Vanboi Island and Freedom Island.
Cat Ba Snorkelling
There is another stunning side to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam, that is not immediately visible when you arrive. And that is the underwater world. Just as majestic as the karst limestones protruding from the sea, they create a visual wonder below the surface.
For a Cat Ba snorkelling trip the water is clearest between May and September. That’s when you will be able to see the coral reef and marine life most clearly. Again, some of the Lan Ha Bay cruises may offer this as part of their packages but you can also opt to do it separately.
Another favourite thing to do in Cat Ba Island is take a side trip to Monkey Island or Cat Dua Island to give it it’s official name. And if you are doing one of the multi day Lan Ha Bay cruises, a stop off at Monkey Island will no doubt already be on your Cat Ba Island itinerary.
To be honest it’s quite sad to see the monkeys have clearly been encouraged to scavenge for human food. Under no circumstances should you feed them or let your guard down with snacks around. Watch out for them too as they can be aggressive.
But spotting the monkeys isn’t all there is to Cat Dua Island. In fact the star of the show is the short hike that takes you to the peak of the island. The views over Lan Ha bay are insane. Make sure you’re wearing appropriate footwear i.e. not flip flops.
Viet Hai Fishing Village
If you’re looking to experience some local culture as one of your things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam, a visit to Viet Hai fishing village might be right up your street. It’s a chance to experience a much more peaceful and tranquil side to tourist heavy boats of Lan Ha Bay.
Sandwiched between the deep water and high mountains, it’s a secluded spot rather cut off from the rest of the Cat Ba Island. To reach Viet Hai fishing village you need to either trek through Cat Ba National Park jungle or arrive via the water to Viet Hai Pier.
A traditional fishing and farming community, Viet Hai village has recently opened itself up to eco tourism. And at least for now, seems to be maintaining its identity. Expect buffaloes ploughing rice fields, houses on stilts and an insight into a simpler way of life.
What To Do In Cat Ba At Night
Floating Barge Karaoke
After spending a little time in Vietnam, there’s one thing you’ll come to know well. The Vietnamese love karaoke. Yes it’s cheesy and yes the singing is sometimes way off the mark, but you can’t deny that it’s entertaining.
So if you’re looking for something with a bit of a livelier, quirker edge on your what to do in Cat Ba itinerary, a karaoke fuelled evening on a floating barge is the one. Just head down the Cat Ba town pier with your best Elvis or Madonna impersonation, you can’t miss them.
If you’ve never heard of bioluminescent plankton, they are tiny luminous sparkles that dance with the movement of the water. And taking a night time dip to experience this magical phenomenon simply had to make our things to do in Cat Ba Island list.
Dependent on the route, the best way to see bioluminescent plankton in Cat Ba is if you are on a multiday Lan Ha Bay cruise. Most boats try to anchor near as little light pollution as possible. So you can take an after dinner dip before settling in for your night of boat camping.
There is also another way to experience bioluminescent plankton in Cat Ba but it’s a little naughty as involves a spot of trespassing. Because they are managed by the hotels, unless you are staying in one, you are technically not allowed to be on Cat Ba Beach 1, 2 or 3 after dark.
However bending this boundary is totally worth it if you get to see some bioluminescent plankton. It truly is an unforgettable experience. Just please be careful and don’t do this alone or if you’ve been drinking. Also if you get caught by security we take no responsibility!
Sunset At Cannon Fort Cat Ba
Witnessing the magic of sunset from stop Cannon Fort Cat Ba was one of our all time favourite things to do in Cat Ba Island. Built in 1942, it was first used by the Japanese during World War II, then later by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
It has a strategic position 177m above the sea and you can see right out across Lan Ha Bay. But it’s not just the commanding view that’s interesting at Cannon Fort Cat Ba. The site is quite expansive with lots of tunnels to explore and you can get a real sense of the history.
The entrance fee is 40,000 VND ($1.75USD/£1.35GBP). Keep your ticket because you may be asked for it at various points. Get there in plenty of time to get a good spot before sunset. And carry on past the busy cafe and picnic area for the best views out over the harbour.
The smaller outlying rugged limestone landmasses and silhouetted boats shooting across the bay make for truly incredible views over the emerald sea. Sunset at Cannon Fort Cat Ba simply has to be on your what to do in Cat Ba itinerary.
Top tip: Grab a couple of cold drinks on your way up to enjoy whilst you’re watching the sun go down. The cafe is pricey by comparison.
History of Cat Ba Island
Translating to Women’s Island, Cat Ba Island actually has quite a sad and depressing history. First of all legend has it that the name came from three women of the Tran Dynasty who were killed. And each body was found washed up on a different beach by local fishermen.
Due to its naturally strategic position, Cat Ba Island was occupied during the French colonial period of Vietnam. The local population put up a fight but fled into the forests and caves. A monument on neighbouring Cat Hai Island recognises local Vietnamese killed in that period.
Then came the American War. As well as the many Vietnamese casualties, deep craters left by the extensive bombing campaign forever scarred the Cat Ba landscape. It’s quite morbid that some of the main tourist attractions and things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam, are reminders of war.
How To Get To Cat Ba Island
The best way to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island is by bus. It’s a direct route with a short 10 minute speedboat ride in the middle. The total journey time is 3 hours and the cost is 360,000 VND ($15.50USD/£11.75BP). You can read more details and options here.
If you are travelling to Cat Ba Island from elsewhere in Vietnam, the route will likely go via Hanoi. But some do go straight to the ports and if your sleeper bus arrives in the early hours you can stay onboard and sleep until it is time for the ferry. Check details from anywhere below:
The easiest way we found to get our tourist visa was to use a Vietnam visa on arrival service. That way you can pick your visa up at the airport you arrive in and it’s saves faffing about going to the embassy. The Vietnam EVisa company we used was quick and straightforward.
Cat Ba Island Weather
Vietnam in general is tropical and muggy for a large part of the year, and Cat Ba Island is no different. Being a little offshore, it is also more exposed to foggy and windy weather. It has two seasons, dry season and rainy season. But there are chances of rain most of the year.
When considering what to do on Cat Ba Island, know the main rainy season runs in summer. From June to August and temperatures peak at 30°C. Winter temperatures from December to February average 15-20°C, but can drop as low as 10°C with the north-east monsoon.
The best Cat Ba Island weather arrives from September through to November. This is when the temperatures are still warm but there’s less chance of rain. It is however peak season so if you want to avoid crowds when planning your things to do in Cat Ba, consider early September or late November.
What To Pack For Cat Ba
Due to year round changeable weather make sure you have a waterproof and windproof jacket. You will be quite exposed up on the peaks and out on the open water. Mosquito spray is also a must. We use Incognito because it’s natural and DEET free but works a treat.
With many Cat Ba Island activities taking place in and around the water, packing a quick dry travel towel is essential. As are waterproof bags to keep your electronics safe. If you are planning on going in the caves, a head torch is a good idea.
And we never travel anywhere without our Water to Go filtration bottles. No only do they save us money because we don’t have to buy water, we can use it from any source. They help with reducing the blight that is single use plastic.
How Many Days To Stay?
The mistake most visitors make is just using Cat Ba Island as a hop on and off for the Lan Ha Bay cruises and not allowing enough time to explore the actual island. To comfortably fit in these things to do in Cat Ba Island, you want to allow yourself 2-3 days minimum.
Then if you choose to do a multi-day Lan Ha Bay cruise and camp out overnight on the water, add those days on top. Depending on where you are coming from, be sure to take into account your travel time in getting to and from the island.
Cat Ba Island Accommodation
From budget hostels to mid range hotels, eco lodges and luxury villas, there’s a varied range of Cat Ba Island accommodation. When you are searching for where to stay in Cat Ba Island bear in mind that some hotels include motorbike rentals in the price.
And it is also worth having an idea whether you would prefer to be in Cat Ba town, or opt for somewhere with more beautiful natural surroundings. For backpackers on tight budgets you can find a bed in a hostel dorm room for as little as $2.50 USD/£2.00 GBP via hostelworld.
Or if you have a little more to spend on Cat Ba Island accommodation there are plenty of mid range hotels which also include breakfast for around $13 USD/£10 GBP. There are also alternative options such as beach camping or stays on floating houses. Have a look here:
Travel Insurance For Vietnam
Our go to backpacker insurance provider is World Nomads. They have a no bullshit approach when it come to policy terms and travel insurance small print. Plus their insurance cover is designed with adventurous travellers like us in mind. Great for if you are planning some of the more venturesome things to do in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.
Get a quick, no-obligation quote here:
This post was originally published in November 2016 but has been completely revamped to provide you with the most up to date and accurate information