Whenever I hear the name, the theme song to the old Nickelodeon cartoon Cat Dog, comes to mind.
Cat Ba is an island off the eastern coast of Vietnam, directly east of Hanoi.
From Hanoi we took a minibus to Hai Phong, a ferry to Cat Ba Island, then another bus to Cat Ba town. We opted to take a private company for convenience and time savings. From Hanoi to Cat Ba took about 3.5 hours and cost $18 per person (definitely pricey, but it was door to door service and cut 90 minutes of travel time). We used Good Morning Cat Ba. They have a website and you can email them to make your booking.
The biggest draw to Cat Ba is Lan Ha bay, which is geologically the same as the much more famous Ha Long bay, but less popular. Back in 2009 Jess and I did an overnight on a Chinese junkboat in Ha Long bay. We both enjoyed that and I wanted to do something similar with John. Reading reviews though, Ha Long bay seems to have risen tremendously in popularity and as such is much more crowded and polluted than it was 7 years ago. Or so the reviews and guidebooks said. I remembered Ha Long being pretty crowded so I thought Cat Ba and Lan Ha bay would be a better option.
It is definitely a tourist destination. There are white people and western food everywhere (and by everywhere I mean the entire 4 blocks of town). But! We had a great time. After the frantic nature of Hanoi, Cat Ba delivered on being quiet, beautiful and relaxing. Plus it had lots of outdoor activities which both John and I enjoy.
Cat Ba Guesthouse
We stayed at Cat Ba guesthouse, which I chose based on cross referencing Hostel World and Trip Advisor reviews. It costs $8.75 total per night. It’s up a hill about a 5 minute walk from ‘town’ but for under $9 per night, it is perfect. Free WiFi and A/C, they’ll do laundry for a fee, plus it’s clean. Highly recommend for a solid budget option. Breakfast was not included.
Things we did
Walk around town. After we arrived on Friday, I took a quick nap, then we ventured out for lunch and a long walk around town. The view from the main road is beautiful.
Saturday we rented motorbikes! It was awesome.
I would not recommend renting a motorbike in a city or a populated area in Vietnam. Traffic is absolutely insane. Basically there are no rules. But Cat Ba is an amazing place to rent motorbikes as there’s barely any traffic and the scenery is beautiful. It was $4/ motorbike for the day, plus gas. To rent the motorbike we went to Mr. Kahn, got the keys, a helmet, a 90 second brief on how to work the bike and that was it. No waiver, no license checks, no collateral, no time we had to be back… nothing. Oh and he filled up the gas tanks using fuel from a 5L Aquafina bottle. Pretty sure an empty plastic water bottle is not graded to store gasoline.
I was pretty nervous on the motorbike, not about driving it but the lack of rules on the road.
There’s no stop signs or stop lights at intersections. You just kind of go and make sure you don’t hit anyone/ make sure no one hits you. It all went fine, though it was slightly nerve wracking while we were in town.
First we went to hospital cave. Back during the war, the Vietnamese put a hospital in a cave on the side of a mountain. I’m a sucker for museums like that.
There were no English signs and no Vietnamese signs either so we just kind of walked through the whole thing not sure what we were looking at. I still enjoyed it.
From there we rode up the North Bay. There’s nothing there but the ride and the views were beautiful.
We stopped on the pier for a drink and snack, then made our way back to Cat Ba town and Cannon Fort.
Cannon Fort used to be a military outpost. There’s leftover cannons and look out points, tunnels and a helipad there.
It’s not surprisingly, on the top of a large hill/ mountain, so the views are amazing.
The motorbike rental might be my favorite thing we did on Cat Ba! It took almost the entire day and only cost $17 total for the motorbike and gas and another $8 in entrance fees. For $25, it was a great way to spend the day. Bonus- John navigated the whole trip, which was a nice break for me!
Sunday was a big day. We booked a full day outdoor excursion. The first half of the day we went kayaking, the second rock climbing. This excursion is most expensive thing we’ve done other than fly on planes. It was $85 for the entire day (rock climbing really upped the price. A full day of kayaking is only $26).
We booked the trip through Asia Outdoors, which had excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and came up in multiple blogs I read. Since we wanted to climb, reputable was at the top of the list.
In the morning, we met at the shop and all hopped in vans that took us to Ben Bao, a ferry port where we took a junkboat out to Lan Ha bay.
Then about 12-14 of us jumped in kayaks and spent the next 2ish hours kayaking around the bay.
We stopped in a big cove and went swimming as well.
We paddled back to the boat for lunch, which was provided and was excellent. There were spring rolls, fish with vegetables, potatoes, tofu, rice and watermelon.
After that we had a bit of downtime which people spent swimming or jumping off the boat.
From there we got on a small boat that took us to an island to climb. There were only three of us total that were climbing, plus 2 guides. I’ll let the pictures tell this story.
On Monday we went to the beach. This beach was only a 5 minute walk from town.
General Notes about Cat Ba
The food in Cat Ba is… solidly meh. There were solid options but besides the Phuong Nhung it was nothing to write home about.
We ate all but 2 of our meals at 1 of 2 places, Oasis Cafe and Phuong Nhung. The two times we tried other options they were pretty terrible. We usually went to Oasis for breakfast (150,000 VND or $6.80 for the two of us) which included eggs for both of us, a banana crepe and a cappuccino.
Dinner was usually at Phuong Nhung. It was typical Vietnamese food and it was excellent. Dinner there was around the same cost as lunch, sometimes a bit more but definitely under $10 USD for the two of us (beers were 15,000 VND, or $0.68 USD).
Much of Cat Ba is a National Park, so besides the ferry ports and some small towns, it’s all protected and not developed (there’s maybe 4 roads on the island). This made it easily navigable, especially on a motorbike.
The town of Cat Ba is pretty ugly. There’s loads of neon lights, gaudy neon signs, loud music and a giant screen in the main square that I never figured out what it was used for (seemed to be photos of Cat Ba and some advertisements? I’m talking like a 15ft x 15ft screen).
There were also town speakers. I think they were just announcing when ferries were coming and going but it sounded like the scratchy Soviet era propaganda speakers blasting in a town square. You could hear the speakers up and down the main road.
There’s also a lot of ‘water life’ in the bay. There’s the obvious barges and boats, but there’s also floating restaurants and floating villages.
After 4 days, we left Cat Ba the same way we came, bus, boat bus to the center of Hanoi. We had lunch then caught the new airport express bus to catch a $25 flight to Da Nang, which is in central Vietnam.