Asia, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island: An Overlooked Paradise

Asia Vietnam

My boyfriend and I recently spent 2 months travelling through South East Asia and then I stayed for a little bit after he had to return to work. For the first few weeks, we spent our time beach bumming in Southern Thailand and exploring temples in the North. Thailand for me, was absolute paradise. So when we left Thailand I was very upset, part of me wanted to stay and skip our next destination, Vietnam, because I didn’t think Vietnam would hold a candle to Thailand. I was proven wrong by the end of our stay.

We flew into Hanoi and didn’t have the greatest experience getting to our hostel: we got ripped off without even realizing it, had to wait for ages until the van had ‘enough’ people, and then the driver didn’t know where our hostel was and my phone had died. So it definitely started off as a mess. Hanoi itself was amazingly insane! It was so busy with so many scooters, restaurants with tiny plastic chairs and tables in alley ways and overall, at first, it was a bit overwhelming compared to Thailand, which was so peaceful. We got in very late so we pretty much went straight to bed after grabbing a quick bite. The next day, we spent the majority of our time trying to figure out how to get to Cat Ba Island. After running around in crazy humidity, we finally figured it out (or so we thought) and got to spend the rest of our day eating our way through Hanoi!

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Getting to Cat Ba Island was much like trying to cross the street in Hanoi: you have no idea what you’re doing, people are yelling at you, and eventually you just decide to make a go for it. After two buses, one boat, and a van, we finally made it to Cat Ba Island. Once we got there, we had to figure out a place to stay because we had heard that it’s best to do it once you get there – I would agree if you’re staying during the week because a lot of locals come to Cat Ba Island for weekends and it does get quite busy. Rooms were pretty sold out but we found one that would let us stay for two nights and it had AC which was a major plus!

After that place, we stayed at Cat Ba Central Hostel for only 5USD a night with breakfast! The actual rooms were pretty big but they overbooked during the weekend so people had to sleep on the floor on make shift beds made of couch cushions. The owners also kept turning off the AC so people had to keep going down to complain and get it back on. Overall though, it was fine for what we paid but if I were to go back, I might try to organize a room beforehand!

We took our scooter out for a cruise around the island and just loved the amazing views!

Let’s back up a bit because you may have never even heard of Cat Ba Island. I hadn’t until doing research into Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site and the amazing backdrop to the recent King Kong movie. So what is Cat Ba Island other than an overlooked paradise? Like I said earlier, it’s a place a lot of locals go to for weekend getaways, which for me made it very appealing! Cat Ba Island is also the cheapest way of seeing and staying by Ha Long Bay for longer than the 1/2-night expensive junk boat cruises that are very touristy. Cat Ba Island is actually quite large with its own National Park so we rented a scooter to get around.

First sunset from our hotel room!

There are three beaches, creatively called beach 1, 2, and 3. We spent most of our time at beach 2 because there was a little restaurant/bar that we could snack at. The main street along the waterfront is littered with great restaurants and bars and there are even amazing floating restaurants in the bay! Not far from the main area is a Cannon Fort that gives you an amazing view of the island and a great history of the significance the island played in national defense – I highly recommend heading up there if you visit. The island has similar topography to that of Ha Long Bay, so picture high mountains covered in greenery and sharp cliffs leading into water – it’s absolutely stunning!

The best view on the island from the top of the cannon fort!
The best view on the island from the top of the cannon fort!

Of course, we wanted to explore Ha Long Bay while we relaxed in this paradise and found some pretty cheap day trips through Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay, which is just as beautiful as Ha Long Bay but way less visited! We booked our trip with Cat Ba Ventures, which is a recommended company by Lonely Planet and myself! The guides were hilarious, they didn’t overcrowd the boat, they took us on an amazing route that avoided congested areas, and the food was superb!

Jumping off and swimming to our own private beach for the afternoon!

After spending a few days beach bumming once again, exploring the rest of Cat Ba Island, and cruising through Ha Long Bay, we had done all we wanted to and were ready to leave; but we didn’t. There’s something about Cat Ba Island, the people, the food, the beaches, just everything that felt so homey and kept us there for a full week! You definitely don’t need to spend that much time on the island but if you’re looking for more of an adventure than a junk boat cruise in the area, I highly suggest staying a few nights – the hectic trip there and back is definitely worth it! 

Taking in all the beauty of Ha Long Bay and smiling the whole way!
Contributed by Marijke-June