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 the 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 of 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 impressed 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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