Ten things we loved about Cat Ba Island (and why it’s better than Ha Long Bay)

We spent a fabulous four days exploring the intriguing island of Cat Ba and its surrounding seascape on the northern coast of Vietnam. Right next door to the more famous Ha Long Bay, which remains the number one tourist destination in Northern Vietnam, Cat Ba has its own beautiful views of karst limestone pillars, islets, and caves, with a laid-back feel and less intensity to match.

We thought a lot about whether to book a tour from Ha Long Bay or Cat Ba Island. Based on conversations with friends who had recently visited, travelers we met, and research we did online, we’re glad we chose Cat Ba instead. Ha Long Bay remains one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam, but its reputation of unrivaled beauty is starting to tarnish. Ha Long is becoming more and more overcrowded with tour groups, masses of boats, and piles of floating trash. Almost everyone we spoke to who had visited in 2019 told us they were disappointed in their recent visits there due to these unfortunate results of overtourism. We’d already experienced some overtourism in Sapa, and were not keen to repeat the experience.

We stayed two nights in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, and chose an organized tour for our last two nights. We had a wonderful time navigating the island and the surrounding bays, including going on a lovely cruise. We highly recommend a Cat Ba Island visit, especially over Ha Long Bay. Here are our top ten reasons why.

10. Walking along the waterfront of Cat Ba Town

We spent one evening on the island simply walking along the promenade area and taking in the sights. The town’s waterfront streets light up part of the walkway at dusk, and everybody comes out for a stroll among the bustling restaurants and street performers. The cool sea breeze coming in from the ocean complements the festive air of the town at night.

Strolling along the bay was a nice way to feel more like a local in Cat Ba town. Couples, teenagers, young families, and tourists all meld together in the streetscape, taking in the evening air. Most of the restaurants on the island are here, so it’s a good way to check out different places and decide on what seems tasty.

9. Watching the sunset from Mona Restaurant

While walking along the Cat Ba waterfront, I immediately spotted a sign that said “best rooftop in Cat Ba” outside of a place called Mona. We knew we’d have to check it out. After climbing about five flights of stairs (the place is also a hostel with several floors of rooms), we reached the roof. It’s a pretty large space with tables and couches, and a great view of the bay. We spent a lovely afternoon eating a late lunch, doing some work, and then switching to cocktails as the sun went down. I could see why they gave themselves the “best rooftop” label, because the views of the bay during sunset were gorgeous.

Cat Ba bay at sunset, by JD Travel

They have happy hour specials and decent cocktails. The vibe feels like a hostel in a good way, with a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere. We didn’t stay late enough, but according to their Facebook page they also host live music nights, which is a nice added touch!

8. Exploring Cat Ba National Park

The wild and rugged national park that takes up about half of the island features some interesting wildlife and beautiful views of the bays. You can do intense full-day hikes, or choose something shorter and more straightforward. Any tour company on the island can help arrange a longer day of hiking, or you can take a taxi by yourself to the park.

We decided to do an arranged expedition in the park as the first day of our organized tour, with mixed results. It started with a pleasant bike ride around some smaller and remote villages on the island, with a quick stop for lunch in a valley. After lunch we climbed a grueling trail covered in rocks and slippery with mud. The trail leads to a small power station, so while you climb, power lines hang along the trail at about shoulder level. They have signs saying “do not touch,” but they’re pretty unavoidable as they crisscross the path (and especially when you’re falling in the rocks/mud and flailing for something to grab on to).

The views at the tiny summit were nice, but criss-crossed by power lines. Overall the hike didn’t feel that safe, so we would recommend going instead through the main park entrance and choosing one of the standard hikes that start at the National Park Headquarters. We heard from other travelers that they have excellent views, are well-marked, and are more straightforward than the hike we experienced.

7. Checking out the small floating fishing villages around Cat Ba Island

There are a number of fishing villages around Cat Ba Island that literally float on the water. Their homes are built on empty oil drums or pontoons, with fish and shellfish farmed below the surface. You can take a boat tour around the island to visit some of these villages, and a few even have homestays available. Many of the boat tours available in Cat Ba town include a visit at a fishing village or two, and you’ll pass by them if you book a standard Cat Ba cruise.

We stopped at one of the fishing villages on our way to hike in the national park, so our guide could pick up some gasoline (petrol). If you’re able to visit them, the villages can provide a fascinating window into the local population, and give a small taste of what life is like living permanently on the water. We even met a giant, 80-pound grouper fish that a family kept under their floating house for good luck.

Fishing villages around Cat Ba Island, by JD Travel

6. Staying in a sea-front bungalow only accessible by boat 

For the first night of our tour we stayed in a lovely hotel made up of bungalows directly on the water in a secluded bay. The only way to access the hotel is by boat, which made it feel even more remote and special. The hotel has its own little beach with a volleyball net, and a restaurant and bar area with karaoke and ping-pong. Meals were communal-style so we met a few friendly travelers, including a pair of middle-aged Australian friends on vacation for a few weeks. We swapped a few travel stories and heard an impressive tale of getting stuck in a camper in the middle of the vast Australian desert with no gasoline for miles and a police-enforced curfew in effect (they made it out in the end!).

Staying in our little bungalow on the water was one of the highlights of our trip. We loved the relaxed and remote feel to it, and it felt so calming to fall asleep listening to the waves lapping up onto the shore.

Sunset views from the bungalows, by JD Travel

5. Cruising the karsts (alone)

The most spectacular part of Vietnam’s northern coast are limestone pillars, or karsts, that have formed in the ocean from mountains that have eroded over millions of years. Taking a boat tour in between these formations is stunning and awe-inspiring, as you realize what a unique place you’re in. Most cruises and tourist boats will have a deck area where you can relax, lie back in a deck chair, and take in the scenery.

Cat Ba’s karst formations are just as amazing as those around Ha Long Bay (they two bays practically overlap), but with far fewer boats. We loved simply laying back and watching the karsts go by, along with the occasional fishing boat.

Karsts around Cat Ba Island, by JD Travel

4. Swimming among the karsts

Jumping off the deck of a boat and into the blue ocean waters surrounded by giant karst pillars is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s also incredibly refreshing to take a dip in the bay during the hot and humid Vietnamese afternoons. Swimming in the cool waters alongside the fish, we felt the enormity of the incredible scenery and nature surrounding us in a way we hadn’t quite felt on the boat.

Our cruise gave us several opportunities for swimming on both days. We had heard over and over again that Ha Long Bay has too much trash in the water for many people to enjoy swimming in it. So we felt very thankful that over the course of our two-day boat expedition, we saw pretty much no trash, and felt comfortable in the waters.

3. Delicious fresh fish

The fish in Cat Ba is fresh caught and amazing! We ate fantastic fish both in Cat Ba town (pictured below), and as part of our included meals on our boat cruise. Due to a lack of refrigeration it’s hard to find good seafood in many parts of the country, so this is the place to get your fill.   

To our pleasant surprise, the food on our cruise was, in particular, some of the best and freshest we experienced in Vietnam. The small crew cooked it up on the boat for every meal, and our group of ten passengers shared it all family-style so we could try a little bit of everything. I was impressed that in such cramped quarters the crew was able to serve up a great variety of tasty dishes.

Fresh fish on Cat Ba Island, by JD Travel

2. Kayaking through the caves and coves

Not only do you get to swim amongst the karsts, but you can kayak to even more remote and untouched parts of the islands and bays that boats can’t reach. Our cruise offered three kayaking expeditions over two days and they were the highlight of our boat tour. The kayaks give you an opportunity to explore smaller coves inaccessible by boat. For most of the inlets we had to kayak through limestone caves at the base of the karsts, that otherwise fill up and become impassable during high tide. For a few of them, the entryway is so narrow that we had to lie flat on our backs on the kayaks to get through the cave.

Once inside these small coves, we just sat quietly on our kayaks and listened as the sound of animals living on the uninhabited islands completely enveloped us. Our guide explained that a rare type of monkey lives on these islets, but we didn’t manage to see any as they don’t like humans. We also pet small jellyfish swimming by us in the water (don’t worry, they don’t sting!). Each kayak trip felt more remote than the next, and allowed us to quietly absorb the imposing, untouched natural beauty of the karsts.

Kayaking around Cat Ba Island, by JD Travel

1. Not seeing other tourists!

As mentioned above, the best thing about Cat Ba island is the fact that there are many fewer tourists on and around the island than in Ha Long Bay. That was the primary reason we decided to go to the more remote Cat Ba Island instead. It isn’t empty by any stretch, but we never felt like we were fighting for our space, especially when exploring the bays and karst islets.

We particularly enjoyed the lack of other people when getting up close to nature. On our swimming and kayaking expeditions over two days, we only ran into one other tour group. Otherwise, we could sit silently and absorb all of the amazing nature around us.

Cat Ba, by JD Travel

We’re glad we chose Cat Ba Island over Ha Long Bay, and we’d definitely recommend it to others who are considering a boat cruise through this incredible slice of Vietnamese scenery.

3 thoughts on “Ten things we loved about Cat Ba Island (and why it’s better than Ha Long Bay)

  1. Pavla

    Hello Daniela and Jeremy,
    Greetings from Prague, Czech Republic.
    I just recently found your blog, and I find it really inspiring!
    Could you please let me know what the name of the company organising your boat tour was please?
    Thank you in advance,
    Pavla

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