Exploring Cát Bà Island & the UNESCO Archipelago

For us, Cát Bà Island was a much more budget-friendly option than the hugely popular Hạ Long Bay and it’s well-known cruises, but it still gave us a wonderful taste of this beautiful part of Vietnam.

We decided to use Cát Bà Express to get us get and from the island and we found them great to deal with, everything ran to schedule and we had great communication. As we had come back from Sa Pả and spent one night in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, we were picked up from our hotel just before 11am to begin the two-hour journey to the ferry terminal at Gót. After a comfortable journey out of Hà Nội and into the countryside it reminded me a lot of heading towards Sa Pả and seeing groups of beautifully ornate, and wonderfully looked-after, gravesites scattered amongst the rice fields.

After we arrived at the pier we had a short wait for the boat to arrive and unload the previous passengers; we then embarked and made the quick 10 minute boat trip across to Cát Bà. Once on the island we were back on another waiting bus for the 40 minute ride into the small township. We had a young, friendly guide during this trip and he gave us all some great local tips and prices that attractions should cost. We got a little tour around the main centre as passengers were dropped at their respective accommodation spots and learnt that there are only about 3,000 residents permanently living on the island with tourist growth steadily on the increase. As we were dropped at our hotel we were warmly welcomed and quickly settled into our room with a very scenic ocean view from our balcony. See our Cát Bà Island ‘home’ review here.Hai Son Hotel_Cat Ba Island_Vietnam_2Now, while it isn’t legal for us to drive in Vietnam, we decided to risk it on the island and hire scooters a couple of times and keep our fingers crossed we didn’t come across any police. This was a strange choice after our run in with some dodgy police in Thailand but thankfully we got through two days of hirage without any issues.

Our hotel had daily scooter hire for 80,000 VND/$5.33 NZD each (we had been told most were about 100,00 VND) so we grabbed two and headed out-of-town and into the National Park (which makes up most of the island). A very pleasant drive on one of the few roads on the island, cruising through the limestone mountains as the towered above us on both sides. Cat Ba Island_Vietnam_1Just 8kms later we came to Hospital Cave, and as the name suggests, it was a hospital built (with help from China) within a huge cave between 1963 and 1965. This amazing, three-storage complex was used as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American/Vietnam War and as a safe house for VC leaders. We purchased entry tickets, just for the adults, at a minimal 40,000 VND/$2.67 NZD each and climbed the steep staircase up to the entrance. Hospital Cave_Cat Ba Island_VietnamWe passed on the offer of a guide and made our own way around the different rooms. There wasn’t a huge amount to see, a few mannequins set up to show the old operating theatres, recovery rooms and such and some photographs and weapons on display in a huge natural cavern that was used as a cinema. They also had a swimming pool!! It wasn’t a long visit but it is incredible to be able to see some of these places and the smarts used during the wars to have these kinds of facilities hidden and operational in such trying conditions.Hospital Cave_Cat Ba Island_Vietnam_1Next stop was to the high viewing point of Cannon Fort back towards town. Lincoln, on the back on my scooter, gave directions and we soon found the road up towards the top. The road incline increased dramatically and our poor scooter didn’t have enough power to get us up, so Lincoln jumped on with Logan and Braxton as I tried to will the scooter up the steep, windy road. Just before the top it stopped completely and wouldn’t restart, so we pushed it to a flat area to park it up and give it a rest as we ferried the family the remainder of the way to the peak and an old helipad. We had a beautiful, quite clear, day and the views from different points were stunning. Cannon Fort_Cat Ba Island_VietnamBesides the views we took in and explored a couple of well restored cannons, tunnels, trenches and a few recovered war items. A day we could certainly mark off as a history field trip as we returned to the scooter, which started without a problem, and headed back down to the township to find some late lunch.Cannon Fort_Cat Ba Island_Vietnam_1After our first couple of days on Cát Bà we weren’t getting the best weather, even though the temperatures were in the mid twenties, the days were pretty hazy. We really wanted the best possible day to do our day tour out on the water so after weather app consultation we decided to put it off for another day and instead visit a few of the local beaches and do a bit more of a tiki tour around the island. There are three main beach coves, conveniently named Cát Bà 1, 2 and 3, so we headed to the first to see what they were all about. There is already one resort on the beachfront and another is under construction. Logan had read that you don’t have to pay to access the beach but you have to pay to park your scooters. We decided to head to the next cove around and see what beaches 2 and 3 had on offer.

Cat Ba 1_Cat Ba Island_Vietnam
Cát Bà Beach 1

We were confronted with signs for more resorts being constructed and so Cát Bà 3 is currently not accessible because of this. Cát Bà 2 was another peaceful little cove with one older looking resort. We parked the scooters just before the cul-de-sac and headed down to the beach. There were a few other people enjoying it, but with a few extra rocks near the water’s edge and the boys wanting a swim, we decided to try the first beach after all. There is a well constructed walkway between beaches 1 and 2 so we wandered around the edge of the cliffs to go back to beach 1.Cat Ba 2_Cat Ba Island_VietnamThere were a few more people on this beach but the swimming looked a little nicer, we headed to the water and were surprised at how cold it was. It didn’t take long for Logan and Lincoln to acclimatise but I just had a quick dip while Braxton played near the water’s edge. Shortly after, Braxton was keen to join Logan and Lincoln in the bigger waves, so I headed to the sand to relax for a bit before we went to find some lunch and go for an afternoon cruise on the other main road of the island.

After checking out a few different day trips and a recommendation from another full-time travelling family, we got ready for our day out on the water with Full Moon Party Tour. We started nice and early at 8am and took a quick drive to where the boat was departing, our tour group of 24 boarded and we began by cruising through the floating fishing villages while heading to Monkey Island.Floating Fishing Villages_Cat Ba_VietnamWe had been pre-warned that the climb to the very top of Monkey Island was a little steep and had some sharp rocks, so we were prepared and wore our trainers instead of jandals but it was only Logan and a couple of others from our group that made it to the peak. The boys and I still did pretty well with the climb and saw some incredible scenery along the way.Monkey Island_Cat Ba_VietnamMonkey Island_Cat Ba_Vietnam_1After about 90 minutes we returned to our boat and began to cruise through Lan Ha Bay and out into Hạ Long Bay where we parked up to do some kayaking. We went through some interesting caves and into an area that some of the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, was filmed. So peaceful and beautiful.Kayaking_Ha Long Bay_VietnamAfter about an hour or so we returned to the boat for lunch, which was a huge selection of different dishes and it wasn’t long before we were completely stuffed. For us we certainly didn’t get a ‘party boat’ as many of our group took to the top deck after lunch for a snooze as we headed towards a spot for some swimming and snorkelling.

We stopped close to ‘whale island’ and the rock formation did in fact look like a whale. Our guide Ryan was quick to jump into the water from the top deck and this was all Lincoln needed to jump in right behind him. This then meant a few others, including Logan and I, made the leap as well and the water was warmer than the day prior. We spent a nice amount of time swimming but there was no snorkelling as the water wasn’t clear enough.
Whale Island_Ha Long Bay_VietnamJumping off the boat_Ha Long Bay_VietnamWe took a different route on our return and while enjoying a few beverages on the top deck we saw more amazing limestone formations and the area where some of the Kong: Skull Island movie was filmed. Generally we don’t do a lot of guided tours but the guide can certainly make or break your day, and thankfully our recommendation worked out well and Ryan was an excellent host; along with the extraordinary landscapes, we had an amazing day for a total cost of 1,080,000 VND/$72 NZD.Ha Long Bay_VietnamWe had a very enjoyable stay on Cát Bà, as part of a holiday you would probably only need 2 or 3 nights but we were glad to have taken a bit longer to relax and enjoy our surroundings.

Average Daily Spend – $85.26 NZD ($87.24 under budget per day)

– Paula

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