“An exotic destination with pristine beaches, secluded lagoons, coves,
tropical forest, and lakes allows you to discover the best places for
kayaking, biking and hideaways for 5 days in Cat Ba archipelago” writes Pham Ha, CEO of Luxury Travel. “As a creative travel company, we are always searching for new, authentic experiences for our discerning guests who want to combine Halong and Cat Ba Island. It’s more fun, especially young adventure travelers and repeat travelers who are seeking something new, unique, special, and hard to find on Google. Our destination experts work hard to find such experiences, and I find investment opportunities here.”
The central hub of Cat Ba Town is now framed by a chain of low-rise concrete hotels along its once-lovely bay, but the rest of the island is largely untouched and as wild as ever. With idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore, you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s over-development.
The two first nights, we stayed at Hung Thang Hotel for an island
experience. Our team is fan of shopping while others preferred to swim in Cat Co 1, 2, or 3, within walking distance from the hotel. Transport was in an electric car which is cheap and friendly to the environment. Photo connoisseurs hunted the best shots of sunset at the Cannon Fort on the mountain top. Visitors can find the landmark of President Ho Chi Minh, created when he visited the Island and the Cat Ba Fisheries Port in 1959.
Cannon Fort (also known as high peak 177) is close to the three beaches, and here you can enjoy a panoramic view of the island from above. Head out of Cat Ba Town to the entrance of the well-signposted Cannon Fort, just 15 minutes away, and take a leisurely 20-minute stroll to the fort. In one direction, are the green-clad limestone karsts stretching into the distance while the opposite side is dotted with colorful fishing boats, beaches, and the town itself.
Travelers should not miss the Fishery Factory to discover and understand the important industry that provides for many of the locals – quintessentially Vietnamese. In the evening, we enjoyed ourselves in many bars and nightclubs, while some of the team did nothing, or sat on the small street-side eateries to while away the evening. The bay has some unique boats that have been converted into floating restaurants, providing a lovely backdrop to the scenery.
Cat Ba National Park
We started early in the morning to explore the forest in the hope of seeing some wildlife while escaping from the the burning summer heat. We chose the short trek trail leading to Ngu Lam Peak and the Kim Giao Forest with our guide, Van Anh. She was very informative and knowledgeable about the park and history.
She worries that the proposed cable car to link Cat Hai to Cat Ba Islands combined with the mega tourism project for mass tourism will damage the island and its environment, particularly some rare wildlife such as the Cat Ba Langur. She suggested we should encourage others to visit the Cat Ba Archipelago before it is too late.
We walked the gentle 2.5 km Cat Ba National Park Education Trail, starting at the entrance to the National Park Headquarters, and Van Anh introduced us to some of the wonders of this special island. Its animals, plant life and diverse habitats are unique in Vietnam. Another activity to visit typical karst caves with amazing features, such as Trung Trang and Quan Y or Hospital Cave. We visited Trung Trang Cave on our way back from the trek to Ngu Lam Peak, and were thoroughly impressed.
According to Van Anh, Cat Ba National Park (officially founded in 1986) is 15 km from Cat Ba Town, and covers an area of 152ha. It is one of the only two protected areas in Vietnam that include both a marine and a terrestrial component. We still saw the old houses of the period of the left hand side of the entrance. A small forest trail behind the national park headquarters leads to Ngu Lam peak, which contains a nice watchtower with a spectacular panorama of forest-covered karts.
Foreign tourists can hire a local guide to head for a 1-10 hour trek through limestone labyrinth leading to Frog Lake in the center, replete with small freshwater swamp forest area that provides water to the population of Cat Ba Island. There are many primary forest on the surrounding kart towers, and moving through to Viet Hai Village, tourist boats take guests back to Cat Ba Town or to some new low-key resorts in Lan Ha Bay. The path can become dangerous and slippery when it rains.
Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve
Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve is adjacent to the Halong Bay World Heritage Site, the Cat Ba archipelago is internationally important for its limestone karst hills and islands. It is one of the best examples in the world of a kart landscape by the sea.
The 366 limestone islands contain landforms, caves and cave deposits that provide evidence of a long history of erosion and landscape evolution. Many of the small islands rise steeply or vertically from the shallow marine waters and are the distinguishing feature of the region. The bigger islands, including Cat Ba Island itself, are covered green tropical monsoon forest.
The archipelago is of global importance due to the high number of species found nowhere else. The golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) is one of the ten rarest primates in the world due to its restricted range and small population size (about 60 in all on Cat Ba Island.)
There are also regionally important habitat types including fringe coral reefs, mangrove forests, sea grass beds, willow swamp forest and tropical limestone forest. Most of the habitats are under severe threat, especially due to encroachment. With these special values, Cat Ba was acknowledged as the World Biosphere Reserve in 2004.
There are 5 villages on Cat Ba Island and the Cat Hai District
administrative offices. Cat Ba is a major coastal fishing zone, and has
tremendous potential in agriculture and fisheries as well as other
development opportunities such as nature-based tourism, near shore artisanal fisheries and aquaculture. The famous local products here are Cat Ba Honey and Cat Hai Fish Sauce. Cat Ba has archaeological sites dating to the Pleistocene area, and relics such as ceramics pieces date to the Bac Son Culture about 6,000 years ago.
The two remaining nights we set sail in Lan Ha Bay and stayed overnight in the Nam Cat Resort in the middle of the bay, among rocky islands and beaches. A full day adventure on the water was set for this third day. Cruising and discovery are the best highlights of the expedition trip.
Staring from Beo Seaport, 10 minute from the main Cat Ba town by bus, we jumped into our private chartered wooden boat and ventured out on Lan Ha Bay. The floating village in Lan Ha Ba was amazing and probably the biggest in the Tonkin Bay. We got off the boat to visit visit the fishing farm. We bought seafood for our lunch and the captain and the cook suggested they cook us a delicious lunch. As a travel expert for quite a number of years, this experience reminded me the Halong Tourism scene 15 -20 years ago.
As all destinations have their growth stages, the backpackers always come first, and the middle class and luxury travelers follow. It seems that Cat Ba is still in the first stage. Lot of bars, cafes, restaurants open late, some small resorts and party cruises please the people who have more time than money. A resort run by an Australian and Vietnamese couple, just for backpackers is a prime example. They come for rest, relaxation, sun and fun. The summer, in particular, is busy and Cat Ba tourism is still seasonal; busy with Vietnamese for the summer period, and quiet for foreigners from September to April.
While cruising we saw the Monkey Island with long and white sandy beaches appearing from nowhere. Others travelers avoid the crowded Cat Co beaches, they can rent a boat and take them to Monkey Island and nearby empty beaches where they have their own peace and privacy.
Our first destination for today was Viet Hai Village, where you find the charms of rural Vietnam. We biked through the island and deeper into the Cat Ba National Park. At the foot of the park, a small village of fisherman live happily.
“They earn their living from the sea but settle in the forest. There are roughly 100 houses in Viet Hai Village which lies deep within the biosphere reserve in the remote corner of Cat Ba National Park. Local economy is autonomous and life is still poor. This small village is a mixture of old and new. You can climb to 268 meters to Navy Peak, from where you, on a clear day, can look right across Halong Bay. The climb is quite steep. Other options are trekking through the village on a nature trail, or over a hill to discover the hidden valleys of Ang Vong.” Explained our tour guide, Truong.
The scenery is breathtaking, and biking with the bike view is amazing. We spent 1 hour biking to reach the village and crossed a limestone en route we could hear the fog singing and admired the charm of a quiet countryside with distant echoes of wild animals. All our team enjoyed the riding experience despite the sunshine. Local people keep their village very clean, even on the water. They are particularly friendly, and the only vehicles present are electric cars, which makes it a peaceful place.
Back to our boat, to continue the adventure, we cruised to the famous sandy beach, Ba Trai Dao, which is the frontier between Quang Ninh and Hai Phong. Our captain said” “We are not allowed to cruise to the Halong part, and if we cross the line, we will be fined by the local government who could suspend our boat for a month. This leaves the impression that you are in two separate countries, and not in just Vietnam. It’s a shame because, more and more people are now visiting the region which is great for the economy, but funny and often silly rules try to control everything rather than enrich the
experience of travelers. As a result, many travelers are now switching to travel to Cat Ba instead, which now seems to be Halong’s best alternative”.
As travel professionals, we encountered problems with such rules applied by the Quang Ninh authorities. Our guests often want to combine their experience of cruising in Ha Long or Bai Tu Long, and then travel to Cat Ba after that. However, we must send them to the border of two provinces, so that another boat can pick them up and transfer to the resort or Cat Ba Town. Quang Ninh authorities no longer allow boats to drop their guests in Cat Ba, which makes the process too difficult.
We arrived the prestigious and pristine Ba Trai Dao Beaches just 30minute after the cruise. One of our colleagues said Thailand’s islands and beaches are nothing compared to ours. Vietnam is too hidden, and we seem to keep our best beaches and islands a secret, only for ourselves. Empty beaches, rocky island as the background, sun, and swimming make us hungry very quickly. Some of our team to jumped from the boat to the ocean which is a lot of fun. A sumptuous seafood lunch waited for us and we savored it. The general consensus is that it was one of the best we have ever had.
Our next excursion was some light kayaking in the afternoon, before checking in to the Nam Cat Resort. Discovery of the bay by kayak is the most memorable for any active travelers to Vietnam. Hang Ca Area belongs to the national park, and is known by locals for its dark and light caves and coves. There is a diverse range of habitats on the island and we saw many wild flowers, bonsai trees, birds and seagulls.
With 2 people fitting snugly in each kayak in Hang Ca, we paddled on the bay and through the first cave to enter an amazing cove surrounded by limestone. How amazing nature mother creates this legendary landscape with emerald water and I had the chance to see the Cat Ba Langur on the Rocky Mountain. The tour guide says that there are only 60 individuals on the island, a truly rare and important species indeed.
Here, the water is clean and emerald colored, and we visited some pearl production farms. Cat Ba Pearls are the most acclaimed in the country, famous worldwide, and you can buy them here at a very reasonable price. On the way back, we entered the over cove, and after passing through it, it’s only a short ride back to the boat.
Our final destination of the day was the hideaway destination of Nam Cat Resort. It’s small, simple and rustic, nestled at the foot of a limestone island with a sandy beach – perfect for two-night stay.
The rest of the time was spent on team building, football matches,
volleyball, swimming and relaxing, reading, playing cards and amusing ourselves in the middle of Lan Ha Bay. Our female team liked to collect shells, escallops, urchins, and crabs on the seabed. In the morning, as tide is very low so one can could walk from this side of the resort to the other sandy beach side. We experienced every single moment here. I will certainly return with my family to this hideaway, and have plans to make an Emperor Cruises Hai Phong 2 or 3 night cruise as a new service on the Gulf of Tonkin.
How to get there?
The expressway 5B Hanoi – Hai Phong cuts down to 1:00 and the local ferry to Cat Ba takes you 1 hour from Ben Binh tourism sea port. More comfortable buses and speedboats are also available for as little as 270.000 VND to get into Cat Ba Island.
Travelers can take a ferry from Tuan Chau to Cat Ba (2 hours). Some tour operators book a cruise in Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long and transfer you to the frontier between Quang Ninh and Hai Phong. Other boats from Hai Phong will pick you up and transfer you your resort/Cat Ba Town for a small fee.
Travelers can also drive a car to Cat Hai on the newly built Tan
Vu-Lach-Huyen Bridge, and then take a short ferry ride from Cat Hai to Cat Ba Island (total 1:45 minutes). The bridge is expected to open to traffic in early September. It will shorten the travel time to around five minutes, compared to several hours by boat.