Cat Ba is the largest island in the Bay and approximately half of its area is covered by a national park, which is home to the highly endangered Cat Ba langur. This golden-headed langur is rarely seen, as fewer than 100 specimens are thought to survive in the wild, although it is the subject of a well-organized conservation program. The park covers both land and marine areas and has high biodiversity, although it is at risk from too rapid an increase in tourism. Other mammals in the park include civet cats and oriental giant squirrels.
Although there is much beauty to explore on the island, Cat Ba town itself is rather crummy: construction, massage parlours, blaring music, touts and drunk tourists. Cat Ba town is essentially a Vietnamese resort town (think Blackpool or Torremolinos) with large numbers of Vietnamese families coming to swim and relax on some of the nearest beaches to Hanoi as well as to take budget tour boats into Lan Ha Bay. The hotels and restaurants are largely geared to this domestic trade although there are some places that cater to the somewhat bewildered-looking foreign tourists who choose to embark on tours from here rather than from Hanoi.
By tourist bus
- There is a bus from Hanoi operated by CatBa Express Bus. Pickup (7:30, 10:45, 14:00) in Hanoi and (9:00, 12:00, 15:40) from Cat Ba Island to Hanoi. Travel time is about 3 hours 30 minutes, with an ECO Bus costing 320.000 VND (~14$) or luxury for 25$ one way, with discounts if you book round trip. Children under 5-year-old: 50% discount, children over 5-year-old: charged as an adult. Surcharge 20% on state holidays. Service on the luxury bus: Wifi, USB power outlet, water, tissues, etc. You can book tickets via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or in person at 37B Nguyen Huu Huan, Hanoi Old Quarter and depart from there. They also provide a very nice full day trip to explore Lan Ha Bay included kayak.
- Buses from Luong Yen Bus Station are not available anymore, the bus station is closed and new buildings are standing there. But some buses might be leaving from Gia Lam station over the river from Old Quarter.
The vast majority of people take a pre-booked tour from Hanoi on a tourist boat, though this is probably the slowest, least flexible, and most expensive way to visit Cat Ba and should be avoided at all costs unless you specifically want to be locked on a tourist boat for five hours while being given the hard sell and overcharged for the most minimal of refreshments.
It's cheaper and more flexible to come either on a non-tourist boat at Halong City or via Haiphong. If coming from Hanoi, you can also take a direct, combined bus/boat trip from Nuoc Ngam Bus Station at 05:20, 07:20, 11:20 and 13:20 which takes 4.5 hr (compare: 5 hr for a slow tourist boat just to get from Halong City to Cat Ba's northern port!) and costs 220,000-280,000 dong depending on the season. The route involves switching buses in Haiphong and is not optimal.
From Haiphong: there is a speedboat making the trip several times a day (the last one around 16:00) from Phà Binh harbor. It costs 150,000 dong (May 2012). The price is written on the ticket but some people sell false tickets printed with 180,000 dong and they say the price was 150,000 dong last year or last month! If the boat arrives in Phù Long, they can also say that 180,000 dong includes the bus from Phù Long to Cat Ba. In reality, it's included in the 150,000 dong ticket. Boat and bus can't be divided as it's the same company.
Local ferries to Cat Ba island provide very cheap travel from different locations. These local ferries may be especially convenient if you travel through the country by motorbike (as you can easily take your motorbike along with you on the ferry). You can either choose to take a ferry from Halong or a ferry from Haiphong.
From Halong: If you depart from Halong, you need to take the ferry from Ben pha Tuan Chau. This ferry station provides hourly services to Cat Ba island and is located 12 KM from the centre of the city. Fixed prices are 70.000 dong for a person without and 90.000 dong for a person with motorbike (so bringing your motorbike with you to the island will only cost you 20.000 dong extra). The ferry takes around one hour and along the way you can enjoy the scenic view of the bay. You will arrive at the Ben tau Du lich Dao pier at Cat Ba Island.
From Haiphong: If you travel from Haiphong, you will need two short ferries (25 and 45 minutes) instead of one long one. The first ferry will take you from Pha Dinh Vu pier (Haiphong) to Ben pha Ninh Tiep pier (the western harbour of Cat Hai island). The price for this ferry is 8.000 for a person without and 28.000 for a person with motorbike. When you arrive at Cat Hai you will need to take a 7 km drive to the eastern harbour of the island to take the local ferry to Cat Ba from Ben Pha Got pier. This second ferry will cost you 6.000 for a person and 26.000 for a person with motorbike. You will arrive at the Ben pha cai vieng pier on Cat Ba island. Both ferries operate hourly but be aware that most ferries will only go until 5 pm and do not depart during the night. Taking the Haiphong ferry is the cheaper and more adventurous option, but most parts of the journey are far from scenic in any kind of way: industrial areas, abandoned ships, unfinished bridges etc. Although this second option might seem slightly complicated, it is easily doable when you have a motorbike. When driving from this pier to Cat Ba town make sure you don't stay on the TL356 road unless you own a dirt bike. This road is under construction (July 2016). Just take the road that connects to the other main road instead. You just need to go straight at the first major intersection.
When you want to discover the best of both worlds, take one out of two options on your way to Cat Ba and the other option on your way back.
You can easily rent a motorbike from any hotel for USD5 (standard) per day or less if you look around or visit in the low season.
Don't pay more than 50,000 dong for a 1.5 L bottle of petrol, which can be bought in some of the small towns as well as near the port area near the end of the town.
Anyone you hire a bike from should give you a photocopied map of the island which will help you with planning.
Local buses across the island leave from the western edge of Cat Ba town, on the water near the market intersection.
Getting around Cat Ba takes some organising. There are electric vehicles which will take you to the beach for 10,000 VND and occasionally elsewhere for a hefty fare. Grab works intermittently and keeps offering destinations in Haiphong. When it does work it is excellent value. Meter taxis all have their meters covered with a towel or piece of cardboard (including companies such as Mai Linh that elsewhere are reputable). Expect to pay 50,000 VND from town to Cai Beo Traveler Dock, but some drivers will ask for 200,000 VND.
- Beaches (Southwest side of the island, accessible from the road). Don't expect surfable waves, though! Free.
- Caves. There are a lot of caves around the island, though none of them are particularly impressive. Some cost money and may have optional guides. You can find them using the map or signs on the island.
- Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay. Organised 2 or 3 day trips into Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay for kayaking, caving, swimming and diving. Book via the honest and fair Mr. Lu at the post office. Prices ~USD45 per person for 2 day / 1 night trip (assuming 4 people in group). Cook Bien spoke basic English and cooked delicious food, Captain Phi friendly and offered us rice wine, and night spent in quiet part of bay was magic.
- Monkey Island. Several boats run day trips to nearby Monkey Island either in isolation or as part of a larger tour. The island apparently has monkeys, but only a few around the accommodation were in evidence. Be aware that these animals are used to getting their food from either the guests or the bins, and therefore are not afraid of humans, so they might cause a problem. There is some accommodation on the island, which consists of eight small, but cosy, bamboo huts just behind a secluded beach. The food was nice, the drinks cheap, and the scenery was spectacular. There's some kayaking available, and a trail for walking, but that's about all. Be warned that the staff like to fire up the generator during the day to listen to their music quite loudly, so you might want to take a kayak trip at that point. Still, a good place to get away from it all. USD40 per night.
- 1 National Park (Enter eastward on the main north/south road). The domain of the endangered Cat Ba Langur, of which there are supposed to be only around 100 left. Things on offer include a walk to a peak viewing tower (1.5-2 hr round trip; slippery and muddy if it's rained recently), a frog pond (probably better in the off (wet) season), a short nature walk near the frog pond, more stuff which you can probably find online. 15,000 dong entry, various guided tours.
- Massage. Enjoy a half hour foot massage. There are several places that offer this service along Cat Ba town waterfront. Alternatively several men offer shoulder and arm massage along the strip of an evening, while you are having dinner. Well worth it, very relaxing, very good. Usually approx 100,000 dong.
- Take a walk around the market at the northwestern edge of town. The seafood section should give you a reasonable idea of the less exotic, locally consumed varieties of seafood caught locally.
- Rock climbing if seeing the beautiful limestone karsts isn't enough for you, try scaling them. Slo Pony/Asia outdoors on the 2nd floor of Noble House are the organisation responsible for all of the climbing development on Cat Ba (and the bulk of it out in Lan Ha Bay as well) so are best placed to provide advice for experienced climbers, and run guided climbing trips for beginners.
- Boat tour with Jim at the Le Pont hotel. He does boat tours through the islands and some kayaking through neat coves. USD25 per person if 4 or more.
- Go kayaking from Ben Beo wharf, a short walk from Cat Ba town. $12 USD for a day. A good way to explore the floating village and go further afield if you're game.
- Sails of Indochina (Classic Sails), 279 Núi Ngọc (Hydrofoil), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. A sailing junks with good food and friendly crew members 149.
- Indochine Junk (Sailboats of Indochina), Ben Beo pier (Seaplane), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Indochine Junk offers sailboats to Catba island, Lan Ha bay and Halong bay. 169$.
- Perla Dawn Sails, Got pier, Cat Ba, Hai Phong (Seaplane), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. One to two night cruises to Lan Ha Bay 169$.
- Cat Ba Kayak Adventures, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Able to arrange stand up paddle board tours for small groups.
The market is the best place to buy most things. Tourist trinkets such as shell sculptures are sold at stalls on the eastern edge of the waterfront.
- 1 Convenience store. Cheap convenience store. For example, Snickers costs 16k VND, unlike shops on the front that charge 25k VND.
- Mr. Zoom Hotel and Restaurant (Cat Ba island), 25 1/4 Nui Ngoc St, ☏ . Mostly good meals, but if he offers you an enormous (2 kg) round-looking crab creature thing, save your USD35.
- Phuong Phuong Restaurant, 237 1 -4 St (Near Hai Long Hotel), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 18:00-24:00. The restaurant has views of the sea, serves Vietnamese food and European food. Airy space, at an affordable price. Be wary of very long wait. USD4.
- Tropicana Cat Ba (Tien Thang hotel and restaurant), 238 street 1/4, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 7 h 30 am to 22 h 00 pm. 2$.
There are a number of sea view bars. Notice that much of the nightlife dies down during low season.
- Noble House, ☏ . Offers 2 for 1 cocktails and free pool.
- 1 Flightless Bird Bar (Kiwi chim không cánh), 189 1 Tháng 4. The original bar on the island, run by a New Zealander and going strong for 15 years. The drinks menu includes reasonably priced imported bottles of wine from various parts of the world as well as a straight to the point cheap drinks section. Darts upstairs.
- 2 Rose Bar, 210 Núi Ngọc (50m up the street behind Noble House). Open until 03:00. Awesome drink menu, most cocktails 40,000. Brand new with nice atmosphere, and a really helpful, friendly young owner. Best cocktail prices in town, if you're sick of drinking beer all the time. Open late, rare in Cat Ba.
There are loads of hotels along the waterfront with little to distinguish them, though a couple have elevators if you are less mobile or are travelling with elders. A few hotels have more recently sprung up down side streets away from the water. These should be cheaper. When looking at rooms, you may pay more for a water view. Free Wi-Fi is standard. Avoid anywhere that tries to "include" breakfast, which costs almost nothing and is probably of questionable quality anyway. Similarly, avoid anywhere that prices in dollars; ask for the price in dong. In off season, everywhere is empty so will compete heavily on price; a huge room for two cost 125,000 dong (USD6) on the water (Feb 2012).
- Hotel Phu Thanh, So 176 Duong 1/4, ☏ , . Really nice, large, clean rooms. Has free Wi-Fi included and satellite flat screen TV. Good showers with hot water that actually have pressure. They also serve some great food in the restaurant during the busier summer months. Friendly staff and family-owned and run. USD10+.
- Ngoc Hoa Hotel and Restaurant, 211 Duong (200 m to the left of the dock), ☏ . Check-out: 12. Rooms facing the bay, close to the ferry. Free Wi-Fi. Elevator. Fridge and air-con included. Family restaurant downstairs. Tours and motorbikes available at good prices if you ask, but the staff is not pushy. Their restaurant serves good simple Vietnamese food, soups, noodles, rice. Strong coffee and fruit smoothies. Big beer for under a dollar. USD10-15.
- Le Pont Hotel, 62-64 Nui Ngoc St, ☏ (Mr. Jim). Dormitory USD3.50 per person, rooms USD4.50 per person, minimum two persons (Apr 2012).
- Song Chanh, 178 Duong 1-4, ☏ . A great value hotel along the main strip in Cat Ba town. Very friendly staff who can also organise onward travel or tours around the island. Ask for Mr. Thuy, and go on the national park trek with his uncle. Double and twin rooms, low season USD10, high season USD15.
- Sunflower One Hotel, Nui Ngoc St (Central, just around the corner from the waterfront), ☏ . Many rooms have sea views. It is often used with Ha Long Bay boat tours when an overnight stay is requested on Cat Ba Island. It is a quality hotel with good food. It has Wi-Fi in rooms, but it can be somewhat unreliable. Its sister hotel, Sunflower Two, which is often used with cheaper Ha Long Bay tours, is about 1 km inland on the same road, and is not as nice.
- CatBa Balo hostel, 238 street 1/4, ✉ email@example.com. 8$.
- Phuong Phuong hotel , 237 1/4 street phuongphuongcoltd@Gmail.com, many rooms with a view to the sea, the room is cheaper in the low season with 7 USD included breakfast.
To Hanoi, the easiest way to leave Cat Ba is through a booked Bus + Boat + Bus ticket. You can find these on the main beach road by the docks. Hoang Long sells combined tickets daily for 220,000 dong, while some other companies are slightly cheaper. Takes about 6 hr.
Leaving town, boats and buses to Haiphong (150,000 dong; almost hourly from 06:00) and Halong City are available from the square on the waterfront near the boat pier. Hotels can book tickets for you at a slight premium.
From Bến phà Tuần Châu harbor to Halong City: 150,000 dong (May 2012). From Ben Beo harbor to Halong City: 170,000 dong- 3 hr - wonderful (May 2012). You can then go back to Hanoi by bus for 100,000 dong (May 2012).