Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Hai Phong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba Town, a fishing village now redefining itself as a tourist centre. The rest of the island is largely unspoilt and mostly inaccessible, with just a handful of paved roads across a landscape of enclosed valleys and shaggily forested limestone peaks, occasionally descending to lush coastal plains. In 1986 almost half the island and its adjacent waters were declared a national park in an effort to protect its diverse ecosystems, which range from offshore coral reefs and coastal mangrove swamps to tropical evergreen forest. Its value was further recognized in 2004, when the Cat Ba Archipelago was approved as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. However, change is coming – at the time of writing, a huge resort was under construction outside Cat Ba Town, and may be the first of many.
National Parks on the island are somewhat of a treat in themselves. With hundreds of indigenous plants and mammals, it is a haven for those who adore wildlife. The Island is home to the Cat Ba Langur, one of the rarest primates in the world - so keep your eyes open for a unique spotting.
Cat Ba Langur © Hoang Mai Thach / Shutterstock
When you think about travelling to an Island in less developed country, you almost automatically assume it will not be such an easy ride. Yet, surprisingly getting to Cat Ba Island is relatively easy, although half-a-day is probably needed. Many local tour companies in Hanoi offer one-way trips to the Island (getting back is just as easy as getting there) inclusive of hotel pick-up and drop off.
If you would prefer to make your way to the Island without a company, you can purchase tickets from Luong Yen Bus Station. Here you will ride a bus to Hai Phong City and catch a boat to Phu Long Pier before another one-hour ride to Cat Ba Town.
Getting around Cat Ba Island
Motorcycle taxis are the most common and affordable means of transport on the Island. With the town being fairly small, walking and riding via bicycle are common choices of transport, however with very little road traffic, it is also an option to hire your own motorcycle to travel to the more remote areas, such as the National Parks. Just make sure you have a driving license and travel insurance beforehand.
Things To Do
Cat Ba Island has a range of things to do, from more relaxing pastimes such as swimming and sunbathing on the beach to more active experiences such as caving and rock-climbing in the National Parks. The island has many scenic beaches and much of its nearby waters are protected due to it's diverse and rare range of marine life, therefore snorkelling and diving are rewarding activities with lots of fish and corals to be seen.
Trekking is also popular, particularly in the rocky areas of the National Parks. For a more historical touch, treks to the Old Fort sat upon a hilltop is a good trip that allows you to explore
several war bunkers that still contain eerie war remains and propaganda posters on its walls. For obvious reasons, the Island was a strategic look-out point during the war and had several uses.
If this interests you, you may also visit the Hospital Cave, an impressive three-storey building amongst the caves used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and a hideout for important members
of the Viet Cong.
To explore further afield, you can also hire a kayak for the day and make your way to either Monkey Island or Lan Ha Bay. Both offer secluded scenic beaches and make a nice change of scenary, kayaking on the open waters around the Bay is also quite spectacular.
Food on the island is something not to be missed. Although there are international restaurants that cater for all taste buds, the seafood is somewhat of a delicacy on Cat Ba. Freshly caught fish
is cooked in traditional methods, be sure to try classics such as geoduck clams, mantis shrimps and oysters. Local beers on the island are also very cheap, as with most beers in South East Asia.
Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam © Jimmy Tran / Shutterstock
Brief History of Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island was named many centuries ago, and translates to 'Womens Island'. It is believed that three women were killed during the Tran Dynasty and that their bodies washed ashore onto three seperate beaches on the Island. The women, found by local fisherman and mourned by islanders, had temples built in their honour. Eventually the story became part of the island,
hence the name.
Archeological evidence shows that humans inhabited Cat Ba’s many limestone caves at least six thousand years ago. Centuries later these same caves provided the perfect wartime hideaway – the military presence on Cat Ba has always been strong, for obvious strategic reasons. When trouble with China flared up in 1979, hundreds of ethnic Chinese islanders felt compelled to flee and
the exodus continued into the next decade as “boat people” sailed off in search of a better life, depleting the island’s population to fewer than fifteen thousand. Now that prosperity has come in
the form of tourism, the population is growing rapidly.
Featured Image © tbradford / iStock