Travel Report: Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.
Cat Ba Island.
It was a hot and humid overcast day in Vietnam when I finally left Hanoi for four nights on Cat Ba Island. I’d had a wonderful time in the Vietnamese capital, but it had all been a bit full-on. Now, I figured, it was time for a little rest and some stunning scenery. In between the million and one things I wanted to do of course!
Getting there was a bit of an ordeal. First I had to take a bus to the northern port city of Hai Phong. From there I transferred onto a speedboat and whooshed through the South China Sea into Cat Ba’s main harbour. As with so many bus/boat transfers in Asia the trip was cheap but tiring, with everyone packed in like sardines.
Finally I jumped into a taxi from the main harbour, which took me to my island base, Sweet Potato Homestay. From door to door the entire journey took about five hours. Located in a peaceful leafy section of the island’s hills, I felt a revitalising sense of calm the moment I stepped out of the car and breathed in the quietness.
After a week in a Hanoi hotel, I’d decided to go budget for my Cat Ba experience. Thus I was fully ready for whatever might await me in my six bed dormitory. However, I certainly hadn’t anticipated having the entire dorm to myself! And so it remained until the last day, when a Canadian guy came sweeping through the door, expressing similar exclamations of satisfaction.
Cat Ba Island.
I really liked the hostel. The owners were a kind, softly-spoken Vietnamese couple with a young girl and a friendly dog. Every morning I would find the daughter playing in a corner at reception, or learning English with her aunt.
The food was basic but tasty enough, and dirt cheap. Most mornings, before heading out, I’d order a coffee and some scrambled eggs. Or maybe a bowl of yoghurt, honey and mixed fruit. Everything went onto a tab, including the payment for my stay. The final bill, including 4 breakfasts, a handful of soft drinks, one lunch, a pizza dinner and a bag of laundry came in at 1.4 million VND. That’s roughly $63.
For the most part I tackled my island adventures on foot. Still, there were a few isolated sights that proved too tricky to reach without a set of wheels. This is where Dai, Sweet Potato’s motorbike driving owner stepped in. “I’ll drive you for free!” he said, “taxi drivers here are bad people!” Of course I made sure to add a tip onto that final bill.
On my first full day I set off on a walk down to the harbour. It took around forty five minutes and was a little hairy, as essentially you follow the main road. Cars and scooters whizzed past me in both directions as I took my chance to see an authentic residential part of the island.
Adventures in Vietnam.
I passed general stores, apartment blocks, a small market and a hole-in-the-wall hairdresser. I also got to see dozens of ramshackle houses with corrugated iron roofs and chickens pecking away in overgrown gardens.
In one, a small boy sat playing on a mound of dirt in front of his home. He seemed curious to see me, so we exchanged hellos and he posed while I took his photograph. He then wordlessly accepted the strip of Pokemon stickers I gave him with a tight-lipped smile.
The main harbour, while not exactly stunning, has a certain charm and is well worth an hour or two. It was an incredibly grey, misty day, the backdrop of the mountains and the ghostly ships making for an atmospheric scene. In fact, this overriding gloom remained for the duration of my stay.
It was here, across several info boards on the promenade, that I learned about the island’s first settlers, who arrived around 6000 years ago. In ancient times it was known as Cac Ba, which translates as Women’s Island.
Indeed legend has it that during the Tran Dynasty the bodies of three mysterious ladies washed up on three separate beaches on the same day. Local fishermen found them and subsequently built temples in their honour.
Cat Ba Island.
There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants dotted around the harbour. All, I must say, of wildly varying quality. One place I can highly recommend is the Green Mango Restaurant. These guys do a little bit of everything, from steaks, pizzas and salads to the usual array of noodle and rice dishes.
Bypassing all those familiar staples, I ordered an outstanding Vietnamese dish called Nom Ga, a fusion salad comprised of chopped chicken breast, lettuce, rice noodles, carrot, peanut and lemongrass in a sweet and sour sauce.
Beyond the harbour, around ten minutes southeast on foot, lies a trio of pretty beaches. They are known as Cat Co Cove 1, 2 and 3, though during my visit only number 3 was open due to various hotel developments.
Even in the foggy gloom it was a lovely spot to hang out and submit to the sounds of the tide and seagulls. It was all so pleasant I ended up staying until nightfall. Coco, a small bar, caters to beachgoers with coffee, snacks, Vietnamese dishes and cheap beer. At the back of the beach, a gate leads to the grounds of the swanky Sunrise Resort.
Cat Co Cove Beach 3.
The rest of my stay played out with a string of half day trips across the island. The first of these was a challenging but rewarding hike up to Cat Ba Cannon Fort, a military base built by the Japanese during World War II.
Most people grab a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) up to the top. Or you could maybe rent a scooter and drive yourself. But as usual I was more than happy to walk, taking in glorious views of the karst-studded sea as I climbed.
It took me about forty minutes to get to the top of the fort. Along the way, there’s an entrance gate where you pay a negligible 15000 Dong (less than $1). My efforts were certainly rewarded when I emerged onto the main viewing platform, with its tables, chairs and sun beds serving a nearby cafe. A surprisingly unpopular cafe it seemed, on that afternoon at least.
It was incredible to have this misty panoramic all to myself. Hence I ordered a Coca Cola, just to get rid of the hovering waiter, and sat for awhile staring out across Halong Bay. I can’t say for sure how long I sat there for, but I’m guessing it was at least half an hour.
Cat Ba Island.
Eventually I shook myself out of the bay’s hypnotic haze and took a walk through the remains of the fort, with its trenches, tunnels and cannon collection. Following the hill’s Japanese occupation, the French later took control during The First Indochina War. It also became an important base in The Vietnam War.
It was cool to see the few remaining cannons, French-made machines produced in around 1910. They used electricity and had a range of 40 kilometres. When the Vietnamese reclaimed the hill from the French they happily used their own cannons against them. According to one poorly written information board, Cat Ba’s cannons shot down six American planes in the summer of 1965.
On my way back down to Cat Ba Town, there were more sweeping views, this time from the harbour. Unfortunately, I’ve read that the fort officially closed in 2019 due to the construction of a large hotel on the hill. Information about what’s happened to the place since is hard to come by. I did find a few tourist reports dated 2020 claiming they had to bribe security guards to let them in.
Another fascinating Vietnam War sight is the island’s amazing Hospital Cave. This one is located a considerable distance out of town, around ten kilometres from the harbour on the road to Cat Ba National Park.
The Viet Cong constructed it in the 1960s on the side of a towering limestone karst. You immediately get a sense of what a perfectly hidden refuge it must have been as you take the steep staircase up to the entrance.
The Hospital Cave.
The cave served as both a bombproof hospital and safe house for Viet Cong leaders. Built over three levels, it was in operation for about a decade before falling into disrepair in 1975. In all my years of global travel I have never seen anything quite like it. At the top of the staircase you enter the cave and duck into the remains of the hospital through a narrow tunnel.
There are around 17 rooms in the cave, including a creepy operating theatre where mannequin doctors stand in a frozen state of mid-surgery. There are also several offices and a large dining hall where dummy soldiers patiently await a meal that will never arrive.
Despite the creepiness of it all, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by what is an undeniably impressive feat of engineering. After all, the place had a network of ventilation shafts, access to fresh mountain water and several escape routes in case of an invasion.
Moreover, there’s a huge cavern set between a number of long corridors that served as both a swimming pool and cinema! I also strolled through half a dozen eerie hospital wards. Completely empty except for rows of rusty beds. It’s an absolutely fascinating place and well worth the 40.000 VND ($1.75) entrance fee.
Cat Ba Island.
From the hospital cave it’s a 7-minute drive (just under an hour on foot) to Cat Ba National Park. This UNESCO approved World Heritage Site is an essential part of any visit to the island, especially if you’re into hiking and don’t mind getting a sweat on.
The park is home to some serious hiking trails, with various routes branching off at the end of its leafy entrance lane, pictured below. This is where one can stock up on water and snacks before you begin your hike. I also saw some sad-looking animal enclosures for sick beasts, including an area dedicated to the endangered golden-headed langur.
As keen as I was to do some hiking, I ultimately passed on the park’s gruelling 18 kilometre trek. Rather, I embarked on a more direct one hour hike up to the highest peaks. Light rain began to fall as I progressed, resulting in me slipping on several occasions. It’s definitely a hike not to be taken lightly, with numerous rocky inclines that require a fair bit of scrambling.
The park is stunning, its walking trails cutting through sections of forest and dense vegetation. They say there are over 78 bird species, 32 types of mammal and 20 breeds of reptile. Furthermore, it’s home to the world’s most endangered primate, the white-headed langur, though you’d be exceptionally lucky to catch even a glimpse of him.
Cat Ba National Park.
At the first of the two highest summits, Ngu Lam Peak, I stopped in the wooden pavilion to take a well-deserved breather. There’s no denying the beauty of the park, even through the island’s signature fog. And it was from here that I witnessed a quite spectacular eagle gliding by, though it was too fast for my clumsy attempts to line up my camera in time.
From the first peak I trekked for another twenty minutes or so. Before long, I was able to look back at the pavilion, now reduced to a thumb-sized model nestled in the hills.
The highest peak consists of little more than a rocky clearing, with several large boulders hanging over oblivion. No protective railings, nada. The platform can only hold about ten people at a time, so I had to wait while a large French party incessantly faffed about with selfies and group shots.
When my turn came, the sun broke through the clouds. Quite possibly for the first time in my entire stay on the island. Consequently, my photos show me awkwardly squinting at the camera. Ah, well.
Most people, I’d read, only come to this part of Vietnam in order to take a cruise through Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay. I did this too, at the end of my stay, an exceptional experience that is surely a Vietnam highlight. Still, I’m sure glad I didn’t skip this beautiful, historic island.
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No wonder Cat Ba Island has experienced a tourism surge in recent years – If I was ever in Vietnam, I would be drawn in by the beautifully rugged, craggy and jungle-clad island, too 🙂
Hey Aiva, indeed Cat Ba Island has so much to offer. And the (arguable) highlight is a cruise around Halong Bay, coming up in my next post. Thanks for reading!
Sounds like a perfect itinerary for anyone travelling to Vietnam. The food and the people are delightful. I really must do this sometime. Cant get the Avatar to show when commenting but it works on the like !! Dad
Thanks for reading! Stunning landscapes, great history and as you say good people and delicious food. Can’t go wrong.
That sounds like quite the adventure even to get to Cat Ba Island! The misty views from the top of the fort look beautiful and good for you for walking there.
Thanks for reading! I was thinking how you guys would love all the hiking the island has to offer.
Cat Ba Island looks very inviting with its rocky coastline and caves. Hopefully I’ll get there at some point. Marion
Thanks for reading Marion, hope you are enjoying Helsinki.
Awww I really enjoyed this from start to finish. Cat Ba Island sounds like a magical place and it must have been a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. The hospital on the fort sounds awesome! I would have been a bit scared crawling in though lol.. great post 🙂
Hey, thanks for reading this one. It got pretty long ha ha. Yeah, the entrance tunnel in The Hospital Cave is definitely a bit hairy.
No doubt there is a certain vibe to the rugged peaks and the fog. How tall are those steep rocky mounds? It’s amazing how landscapes like that can be so beautiful and yet difficult to photograph. Hard to find individual structures to serve as a center of interest. Was this the off season for tourism or did you just hit things right?
The limestone mounds are “really tall” let’s put it like that. Not sure of the exact heights. This was in the off season yeah, which typically runs between April and June, September to November. The island was really peaceful for the most part and, even in the busy periods, folk tend not to stay there. Rather, they come to cruise Halong Bay on day trips.
We are loving it here Leighton. Just having a coffee in Tampere after a nice long walk. The autumn colours are starting to show as it is cooler here, so cool in fact that we bought woolly hats and gloves yesterday as we hadn’t packed any though we have come in padded coats and scarves. I don’t mind the cold as long as it stays fine which thankfully it’s done so far. Hope you are both enjoying Montenegro. Marion
Fascinating post on such a tucked away island! The hospital cave was really interesting to read about, such ingenuity to create that kind of space. And your pictures of the national park were amazing! I hope you have a great rest of your week.
Thanks so much Meg! This piece turned out way longer than I’d anticipated, but I think it’s testament to how much I enjoyed reliving this leg of my Vietnamese adventures. Hope all is well with you and the family in Tennessee.
well worth it being longer if you get to share so much of somewhere you really enjoyed. We’re doing good, fall is almost here and Tennessee is so lovely in the fall. I hope you and Sladja are doing well too 🙂
I can imagine fall in Tennessee is gorgeous. We are doing great and love Montenegro so much we’ve decided to stay for another month. It’s still pretty much summer here, so wanna hold onto that sunshine for as long as we can.
I spotted several tours to Cat Ba Island that went along with the Halong Bay cruises. This area looks beautiful.
The island is well worth 2-3 days if one can afford the extra days. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Excellent travel report Leighton! I wish I’d added Cat Ba Island to my Halong Bay tour. The national park and hospital would have been worth it. Sunshine is good for photos but it is also nice to experience the mystery that fog can provide.
Thanks John. As an experience yeah, the mist was wonderful. As a photo editing process less so ha ha.
Looks like an incredible place to stay a few days! Love the mix of history and nature
Thanks Lyssy! It’s been a lot of fun writing up these Vietnam adventures.
Those foggy views are mesmerising, as you described, hypnotic. I always like a place where you can a do a bit of everything – relaxing, hiking, beautiful nature sight sighting and some history. The hospital definitely seems like a must-do in the island, it’s just incredible!
Hey Nic, thanks for checking out my post on Cat Ba Island. You’re right, as a travel destination it has everything.
Cat Ba Island is a great place to visit… never been there but looks like a beautiful landscape.
Thanks for reading! There is definitely something captivating about those peaks and the mist.
Cat Ba Island looks so tranquil, especially during your time there. The caves are really fascinating, especially with the various tunnels going through them; I can imagine they must’ve been thrilling to explore (I’d channel my inner Tom Sawyer with them!). Despite the gloom during the majority of your stay, I’d say it was advantageous, as it gave off a more-dramatic atmosphere, especially to capture all of the photos you took!
Ha yes, one’s inner Tom Sawyer, exactly. Yeah I think the gloom adds something special to the place in terms of character.
That hospital must have been a fascinating place to visit, very evocative I imagine. As you know, our memories of Vietnam aren’t great but we are very determined to resurrect that trip if ever COVID restrictions permit. Your photos of that mist bring back memories of those last two days in March 2020 as the world shut down.
Thanks for reading! Like you most people seem particularly taken by the hospital cave.
Cat Ba Island looks like a really great place to visit – of course I’ve only heard of Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay … but like you’ve said, one should include this island for sure! Lovely views from the fort and what a great visit to that hospital in the cave.
Cheers! I was thinking how you guys would love the hiking possibilities around the island. Certainly a different kind of beauty to your recent adventures in the Postberg Nature Reserve.
That’s true, but no hike is the same … and this one you described here, looks like something we would definitely enjoy.
[…] Travel Report: Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. […]
I didn’t know about this island, loved the misty island views. Though I generally stay away from hostels these days after some not so pleasant experiences, my heart skipped a bit at reading the name Sweet Potato Homestay. Glad it worked out well for you!
I’m with you on hostels Ruth, I rarely go down that road anymore. Glad you like the look of Cat Ba Island!
Love the harbour shots and those views from the fort are stunning! The Hospital Cave reminded me of the war tunnels near Saigon, right down to the stiff mannequins.
Hey Sarah, I didn’t see the war tunnels near Saigon, good to know that’s a similar site. The mannequins are a bit tacky but do add a fittingly spooky feel to proceedings. Thanks for reading!
I’ll do a post about those tunnels soon, so you can compare notes. I found it a somewhat odd experience!
Great stuff, I’ll keep an eye open!
Fascinating! I would like to know how you decide where to go? Do you arrange your trips yourself or do you use an travel agent?
Kellye! I have just this moment finished a comment on your Albuquerque piece when I discover your batch of comments, which ended up in my trash folder. Woooordpreeeess!! I’m glad you enjoyed my piece on this little island in Vietnam. I don’t think I have ever used a travel agent. As for where to go, I wish I could reveal some grand masterplan, but really it’s mostly been random/spontaneous. In the case of Vietnam, I was living in China at the time and in between teaching contracts. Had always wanted to see Vietnam, and it was just a short flight over from the Chinese city of Guangzhou. That was a really great cross-country trip, all published and safely stored here on the blog.