Nestled on the periphery of Vietnam's fabulous Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island is big -- more than 350 square kilometres -- but most tourists see but a sliver of it. Put ashore as part of a three-day tour of Ha Long Bay, time is spent on organised treks or bike rides in the national park and tours of Monkey Island, or eating at one of the many seafood places around the harbour.
But independent travellers shouldn't rule out a stay. Three beaches are located near the harbour town -- hardly world class, but they'll do for a quick swim and some baking on the sand. The national park is a good place for a close-to-nature trek among the mangroves and freshwater lakes and it's a good launching point for tours of Ha Long Bay and kayaking trips.
You can also explore Hospital Cave on the main island, which played its part in the war with America, enjoy the views from Cannon Fort or just cruise the island on a motorbike. A 100 kilometre circuit runs along the bay and into the interior, through incredibly beautiful countryside, and small villages where life in Cat Ba has gone on, largely untainted by the decades-long boom in tourism.
If you have the time, allow at least a couple of days to explore -- longer if you plan to use it as a base to take boat trips out into Ha Long Bay, relax on the beaches or engage in activities such as rock climbing. And, of course, you'll want to leave enough time to enjoy the fresh seafood, relax with a beer overlooking the bay or stroll along the promenade, which provides a pleasant view, dotted with fishing boats and floating restaurants. Make sure you catch at least one of the smouldering sunsets.
Accommodation on Cat Ba isn't particularly inspiring but there are some good options in all price ranges. If you want some luxury you'll need to go to the beach. With so many hotels it's unlikely you'll have problems finding a room – we went on a weekend in August and only a few places were full.
Cat Ba Island is shaped like an upside down and poorly drawn triangle, with the national park filling most of its land area. Gia Luan Pier, where boats from Ha Long City and Tuan Chau dock, is on the northern coastline. From here a road runs through the centre to the southern point where the main town is located. The town doesn't have a name as such, but it's where most of the islanders live and where most of the accommodation, tourism services and dining options are located.
Most of the action is along the main thoroughfare (1-4 Street), which runs along the edge of the harbour, and along two roads that head inland, perpendicular to it. Both of these roads are named Nui Ngoc (it's actually one road that loops inland and returns to the harbour). It's not easy to get lost.
ATMs are in scarce supply but in the town you'll find one in a kiosk near the entrance to the pier and another in the entrance of the Holiday View Hotel. We weren't able to get cash out of the one near the pier, so best to travel with enough cash to see you through, just in case. Internet is available at hotels and restaurants.
Attractions near the town include Cannon Fort and the beaches, all of which are accessible by foot. The pier from where the day trips and boats to Monkey Island depart is just over one kilometre from the town. To reach the national park or Hospital Cave you will need to take a motorbike, taxi or motorbike taxi back up the central road -- if you're not going on an organised tour.
There's not much of interest in the north of the island, and no road access to most of it anyway, but other than the main road running north to south a smaller road runs west from just north of the national park entrance and takes a circuitous and beautiful meander along the coast back to the town (south) or north to the pier from where boats depart to Ha Long City.
By Sarah Turner