THE FAR NORTH || THE NORTHERN COAST || CAT BA ISLAND
Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Hai Phong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba Town, a fishing village now redefining itself as a tourist centre. The rest of the island is largely unspoilt and mostly inaccessible, with just a handful of paved roads across a landscape of enclosed valleys and shaggily forested limestone peaks, occasionally descending to lush coastal plains. In 1986 almost half the island and its adjacent waters were declared a national park in an effort to protect its diverse ecosystems, which range from offshore coral reefs and coastal mangrove swamps to tropical evergreen forest. Its value was further recognized in 2004, when the Cat Ba Archipelago was approved as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. However, change is coming – at the time of writing, a huge resort was under construction outside Cat Ba Town, and may be the first of many.
Archeological evidence shows that humans inhabited Cat Ba’s many limestone caves at least six thousand years ago. Centuries later these same caves provided the perfect wartime hideaway – the military presence on Cat Ba has always been strong, for obvious strategic reasons. When trouble with China flared up in 1979, hundreds of ethnic Chinese islanders felt compelled to flee and the exodus continued into the next decade as “boat people” sailed off in search of a better life, depleting the island’s population to fewer than fifteen thousand. Now that prosperity has come in the form of tourism, the population is growing rapidly.
Cat Ba Town
Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, is emerging as Vietnam’s adventure sport and ecotourism hub. There’s an energetic roll-call of activities, including sailing, bird-watching, cycling, hiking and rock climbing.
Except for a few fertile pockets, Cat Ba’s terrain is too rocky for serious agriculture. Most residents earn their living from the sea, while others work in tourism.
In recent years, Cat Ba Town has experienced a hotel boom, and a chain of ugly concrete hotels now frames a once-lovely bay. But the rest of the island is largely untouched, and with idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s overdevelopment.
Most of the year Cat Ba Town is a laid-back place, and an excellent base for activities around the island, or sailing and kayaking around Lan Ha Bay. On summer weekends Cat Ba turns into a roaring resort, filling up with vacationing Vietnamese. Hotel prices double or treble and there’s an excess of karaoke joints and hubbub. Cars are banned from the promenade, which is taken over by a sea of strolling holidaymakers. Weekdays are saner, but still busy between June and August.
Ho Chi Minh paid a visit to Cat Ba Island on April 1 1951 and there is an annual festival to commemorate the event. During this time, expect lots of waterfront karaoke and techno beats from 8am to midnight.
Almost half of Cat Ba Island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems: subtropical evergreen forests on the hills, freshwater swamp forests at the base of the hills, coastal mangrove forests, small freshwater lakes and coral reefs. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves.
Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. The island’s largest body of water is Ech Lake, (3 hectares). Almost all of the surface streams are seasonal. Most of the island’s rainwater flows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea, creating a shortage of fresh water during the dry season.
Lan Ha Bay, encompassing the southern seas off Cat Ba, is dotted with hundreds of jungle-topped limestone islands with many deserted beaches.
Cat Ba’s best weather is from late September to November, when air and water temperatures are mild and the skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler but pleasant. From February to April is still good, but you can expect some rain. Summer (June to August) is hot and humid with occasional thunderstorms. This is also peak season and the island is packed with Vietnamese tourists.
The rest of the island
One of Cat Ba’s main draws is its rugged unspoilt scenery. A recommended outing is to rent a motorbike or a car for the day and explore the island’s few paved roads and its isolated beaches.
Quan Y Cave
The main cross-island road climbs sharply out of Cat Ba Town, giving views over distant islands and glimpses of secluded coves, and then follows a series of high valleys. After 8km look out on the right for the distinctive Quan Y Cave, a gaping mouth embellished with concrete, not far from the road. During the American War the cave became an army hospital big enough to treat 150 patients at a time.
Cat Ba National Park
Taking up much of the island is Cat Ba National Park, established in 1986 and little changed in decades. Its most famous inhabitant is a sub-species of the critically endangered golden-headed langur, a monkey found only on Cat Ba and now probably numbering fewer than sixty individuals. Considerably more visible will be the rich diversity of plant species, including some 350 of medicinal value, as well as birds, snakes and plenty of mosquitoes.
One of the most rewarding ways to explore the area is by boat from Cat Ba Town, passing through the labyrinth of Lan Ha Bay, a miniature version of neighbouring Ha Long Bay but one which receives fewer visitors. There are floating villages and oyster farms in the area, which can be included in tour itineraries. Other options are kayaking, rock-climbing and visits to isolated beaches where the water is noticeably cleaner than elsewhere in the bay. Be warned, though: Cat Ba is by no means undiscovered and during the local summer holidays (June to mid-Aug) hotels and beaches in the area can be swamped.
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