Cat Ba highlights and travel guide
Cat Ba Overview
Cat Ba Island extends out of the water like a mythical creature that has settled in the bay. It’s weather worn and craggy surface now covered with a coat of green. Lying on the perimeter of Halong Bay, the island possesses all the enchanting beauty of the surrounding area, combining rugged karst peaks, thick forest jungles and calm, clear waters. It is the largest island in Cat Ba archipelago.
Cat Ba island, a viewpoint from the island
The magic of this island lies in its stunning natural beauty; approximately 50% of the islands is made up of the National Park and the surrounding waters are also a haven for coral reef and aquatic wildlife. The diversity of ecosystems on the island has resulted in a high level of biodiversity with many species of animals also inhabiting the island.
The name Cat Ba comes from a legend from the Tran Dynasty and roughly translates as Women’s Island. Legend has it that the bodies of three dead women were cast into the sea and washed up on different beaches around Cat Ba Island. The bodies were discovered by local fishermen who then created a temple for each of the three women. The history of human inhabitants on Cat Ba actually dates back much further than this legend; archaeological digs date the earliest human inhabitants to approximately 6000 years ago.
During the French and American Wars, Cat Ba’s prime position as a vantage point meant that it was subjected to harsh bombing. Some wartime relics remain on the island such as Hospital Cave and Cannon Fort. The third Indochina War also had a substantial effect on the makeup of the island. As a result of the bad relations between China and Vietnam, up to 30,000 Chinese inhabitants were evicted from the Halong area. Today, the island has a population of roughly 13,000 inhabitants on the island and a further 4,000 in the surrounding fishing villages.
As well as its permanent inhabitants, Cat Ba welcomes over 1.6 million tourists onto its shores each year. For the past 15 years, the tourist industry on the island has burgeoned with many hotels and guesthouses springing up to cater for the yearly influx. The peak season on the island is between June and August when temperatures are at their hottest. September to November brings cooler weather and clearer skies and is a great time to enjoy the island.
Year round, the island has many activities and experiences on offer from basking on the beaches to trying out some exciting outdoor sports.
See and Do
The Cat Ba National Park extends across 263 square kilometres of hilly forested terrain. The area is dense with vegetation which provides a fantastic habitat for the plethora of species inhabiting the island. Amongst those animals are 32 species of mammals, 78 species of birds and 20 species of lizards and reptiles. White-headed langurs are one of the mammal species found on the island and are one of the rarest primate species in the world. Trekking through the park is a popular activity, and it is easy to see why. The clean air, rich forest and stunning views are bound to fill you with vitality. Independent hiking is possible, but it is a good idea to have a guide, not just for safety, but also for their expert knowledge of the fauna and flora. The national park caters to all abilities from a gentle afternoon walk to the more vigorous trek up to the summit of Cat Ba’s highest peak.
Cat Ba National Park, ideal for trekking and outdoor activities
The water surrounding the island offers just as many opportunities for exploration either independently or as part of a tour. Kayaks can be hired to row around the bay and discover the rugged karst cliffs of the island. During the warmer months, the surrounding sea is great for swimming, snorkelling and diving. The underwater landscape is equally as beautiful with the corals being inhabited by many different species marine wildlife.
The best way to discover Cat Ba beaches is kayaking on Lan Ha Bay
For those who enjoy some adrenaline-fueled sports, the craggy peaks and cliffs offer great climbingopportunities with a range of different difficulties. The difficult climbs are well worth the effort with breathtaking views across Halong Bay serving as a reward at the summit. With the popularity of the sport increasing, more companies a popping up over the island and is important to choose a reputable one.
The beauty of the island can discovered by hiring a motorbike or bicycle. Renting a two-wheeled vehicle is easy on the island and is a fantastic way to get out of the town and explore the rugged hills, thick green forests and hidden beaches.
Cat Ba has three main beaches named Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3. All sit at on the south-east coast of the island, the small crescents of golden sand hidden by the imposing karst cliffs. There are other, more secluded beaches on the island that can be reached by boat.
Monkey island resort and beach
The island also has some historical sites which offer an insight into Cat Ba’s involvement in the French and American Wars. Hospital Cave sounds as if it should be a secret hideaway in a high octane, adventure film, and it has certainly seen plenty of action over the years. During the war with America, the cave system acted as a bomb proof shelter and hospital for Viet Cong soldiers to take refuge in. The cave has been dormant since 1975 apart from visitors who make the trip to discover the fascinating hideout which once featured a hospital, cinema and even a swimming pool. Now walking around the deserted corridors whose walls have grown green with moss and seeing the empty rooms where injured soldiers once lay has a distinctly eerie feel to it. It is worth the trip to appreciate the ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into the creation of this Cave Complex.
Cannon Fort is another site which offers a peek into Cat Ba’s past. Built by the Japanese in World War Two but also used throughout the Indochina and Vietnam Wars, this defence system is located 177 meters above sea level. This strategic position made it easy to spot advancing enemies and stop them in their tracks using the canons. Today, however, this means that it affords visitors some of the most incredible views. Sunset is particularly beautiful; each night, views of the thick jungle, silhouetted boats and karst peaks glow in the rich light of the sun before it dips down below the horizon.
Culture and Arts
Settled in amongst the craggy outcroppings surrounding Cat Ba Island are the colourful floating fishing villages. Along with tourism, fishing is one of the main sources of income on Cat Ba. The brightly coloured houses and boats bob on the water show how, over many years, people have learned to live synchronously with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Cai Beo, an ancient fishing village just 2 km from Cat Ba Island, is a great place to discover this unique way of living. The flotilla of houses and boats and is thought to be one of the oldest and largest of its kind.
Fishing is the main job, Visit the fishing villages on Cat Ba island to find out about local culture.
You can also see some of the impressive catches hauled in by the local fishermen at the local market. Here every type of seafood is laid out from the fresh morning catch to a ion of dried seafood. Some of the produce is so fresh that is still alive. As well as the amazing display of seafood the market is always stocked with piles of colourful fruit whose vibrancy and sweet smell appeal to the senses. The market is not only a great place to stock up on supplies but also to meet the local people and find out about their culture.
Food and Drink
Cat Ba is a feast for seafood lovers with fresh produce available every day. Either bought at the market or devoured in the restaurants, the seafood on Cat Ba is about as fresh as it gets.
The geoduck, or elephant trunk clam, is a local delicacy known for unique taste and high nutritional density. The unusual looking mollusc is prepared in a variety of local dishes, one of the favourites being steamed and served with spices.
Cat Ba also has some fantastic options when it comes to shellfish. All sorts of dishes are cooked up daily from the different types of crabs which are caught around the island. Horseshoe crab is served up in a variety of dishes often served with a spicy and sour sauce. King crab is also another popular dish which is also often accompanied by lemongrass and fiery chillies. As well as crab, lobsters are widely available on the island. Steaming is the most popular way to prepare the lobsters which are then served up with a fresh crisp salad.
The seafood on Cat Ba also features some more unusual creatures for those who like to try new things. Sea snake is a local delicacy which is thought to have strong nutritional and even medicinal values.
There are also lots of fish dishes which showcase the fresh fish caught from the surrounding waters. Snapper and Gio fish are steamed, grilled and fried to create some mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes which fill the air with their tempting aroma.
Festivals and Events
As well as celebrating the traditional Vietnamese festivals, Cat Ba also has a unique event which takes place once a year. Every April 1st, the island community joins together to celebrate Den Ba. The festival not only commemorates Ho Chi Minh’s visit to the island, but it is also a celebration of the importance and value of fishing. The festival usually kicks off with a speech paying tribute to Ho Chi Minh’s visit to Cat Ba which was a great honour to the community. After this, there is an exciting dragon boat race in which teams take to the water in the brightly coloured wooden boats and race along the shoreline in a bid to be the fastest boat. The festival is full of cultural activities and celebration.