Within easy reach of Hanoi, Cat Ba island sits in the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on the North Vietnam coast. There is a whole host of things to do in Cat Ba which makes it the ideal escape from travelling the Vietnam mainland for a few days.
The ferry journey to Cat Ba island is stunning in itself as you sail between hundreds of towering limestone karsts. A lot of visitors to this area opt to take a cruise around Ha Long Bay but miss out on all the hidden gems Cat Ba has to offer.
We’ve got all the info you need to get the best out of your visit including how to get there, where to stay on Cat Ba Island and what to see and do.
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The Best Things to do in Cat Ba Island
1. Explore Cat Ba Island by Motorbike
One of the best ways to explore Cat Ba Island is by motorbike. There is public transport between the main towns but having your own wheels means you can easily visit more of the things to do on Cat Ba island.
Prices might vary from place to place, but it should cost you around 130,000 VND to rent one for the day with helmets included.
It also costs around 40,000 VND for a tank full of petrol too, but it's really worth it. If you fill up with fuel at a gas station in Cat Ba town it might be a little bit cheaper.
We really loved exploring Cat Ba Island by motorbike, seeing how the soaking rice fields and lush jungle surroundings suddenly merged with the epic limestone karsts.
Being a fairly small island, it makes the ideal place to get the hang of riding a motorbike or moped in Southeast Asia. There’s not much crazy traffic here, especially compared to the roads in mainland Vietnam.
2. Visit the Spooky Hospital Cave
This 3 storey concrete bombproof cave complex was constructed between 1963 and 1965 for use as a hospital during the Vietnam (American) war. It also served as a safe house for Viet Cong leaders and was in use up until 1975.
There are 17 rooms in total including an old operating theatre with freaky mannequins to show what went on here. Make sure you climb the staircase leading up to the natural cavern at the far end which was once used as a cinema.
At just 40,000 VND per person, the Hospital Cave on Cat Ba island is well worth a quick visit. You can explore the cave alone or hire one of the guides which are often found at the entrance.
The Hospital Cave is located around 10 km north of Cat Ba town and easily spotted by a big sign by the main road.
The ticket box is on the opposite side of the road from the cave. There is a parking lot and a Vietnamese restaurant here if you are feeling peckish.
Don’t miss the stunning views back down the valley from the well-hidden cave entrance.
3. Venture into Trung Trang Cave
Just a little further along the main road from the Hospital Cave, you’ll find Trung Trang Cave on Cat Ba Island. This one is a geological wonder with hundreds of stalactites on display in the 300-meter long cave.
The cave has it’s own unique ecosystem and is home to various reptiles, insects, and bats living among the darkness. Given this, it might be best to stick to the well-illuminated main path through the cave!
The entrance fee to Trung Trang Cave is included in the ticket to Cat Ba National Park or costs 40,000 VND for a separate ticket.
4. Explore the Historic Cannon Fort
At 177 meters above sea level, Canon Fort can be a great hiking experience, but climbing uphill with our little hired scooter was no effort. You can scoot all the way up to the site and park your bike in the designated parking area.
Due to its prime location, the Cannon Fort was successfully used during 3 wars, by the Japanese during WWII, the French during the Indochina War, and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. It's an interesting site to visit, well preserved and clearly marked.
We had a nice and slow stroll through the narrow passageways, the dark U tunnel, and small rooms and ended up next to real size canon with soldier mannequins around it.
The Cannon Fort entrance fee is 40,000 per person.
5. Catch the Sunset from ‘High Point 177’
As you explore the Canon Fort, don't forget to enjoy the scenic views of Cat Ba Island from High Point 177 also known as the Divine Fortress.
It was very foggy on our arrival, as you can see in the photo above, but the views out across the bay were still stunning. We sat on the bench for just a few minutes until the fog cleared revealing the beautiful view across the bay.
This is an ideal spot to enjoy a sunset across Cat Gia Bay and beyond. If the weather is being kind then the limestone karsts will be bathed in a beautiful orange glow.
There is a cafe on site but why not bring up a cool Bia Ha Noi or two to sip on whilst watching dusk fall across the island.
6. Take a Hike in Cat Ba National Park
The lush green jungle of this UNESCO World Heritage Site covers most of the island and is certainly the star attraction on Cat Ba.
Most visitors opt to take the 2-hour hike to Ngu Lam Peak and back. The clearly marked trail is suitable for anyone with a decent level of fitness and offers stunning views from the summit.
Just be sure to take your time on the steep sections in the high humidity and bring plenty of water with you.
Cat Ba National Park is home to the critically endangered white-headed langur. They are one of the world’s most endangered primates with only 70 known to exist and most of those live here.
You’ll be extremely lucky to see one on the main Cat Ba National Park trekking route. But who knows if you hire a private guide to explore away from the main trail what you might spot.
7. Trek to the Hidden Viet Hai Fishing Village
If you are feeling more adventurous then you can hire a personal guide (approx. 600,000 VND) and take on the challenging 9 km hike out to Viet Hai village.
It’s worth having a local guide for your safety as there is still unexploded ordinance in the jungle left from the Vietnam War. Along the way, you might even spot some of the various wildlife in the park including macaques, deer, civets and rare species of squirrel.
Once you reach Viet Hai village there’s not a great deal to do here apart from relaxing and observing the traditional local way of life. There are some limited accommodation options or want to linger a little longer such as the Khanh Ngoc Homestay.
To leave you can walk or take an electric bus the 5 km down to the local pier where you can catch a taxi boat back to Ben Beo Pier near Cat Ba town. You can always do this route in reverse if that better fits your plans.
8. Cruise Around La Han Bay
You can sail in between the towering limestone karsts of La Han Bay with a one, two or three-day cruise starting from Cat Ba Island. This is a great alternative to the cruises at Ha Long Bay next door which is usually packed with day-trippers from Hanoi.
There is a wide range of tour options to suit all budgets and itineraries. From simple day trips to 2-night 3-day cruises packed with activities on and off the boat such as kayaking, snorkelling and dining at a floating fishing village.
9. Visit Monkey Island
Monkey Island or Cát Dứa to give it its proper name is a rocky outcrop 2 km east of the main Cat Ba island. As the name suggests it is home to some particularly feisty monkeys so if you go for a walk don’t carry any loose bags or bottles they can steal.
Beyond the monkeys, the main attractions here are the two main beaches and the mountaintop view. Be aware that it is a literal climb up to the viewpoint, solid footwear and decent fitness are rewarded with some amazing views.
Many boat tours and cruises stop off here or you can take the ferry over from Bến Bèo pier on Cat Ba.
If you’d like to stay a little longer then the island is home to a couple of resorts where you can kick back far away from it all. The most popular is the Monkey Island Resort complete with its own private beachfront!
10. Kayak Around Cat Ba Island
If you’ve overdosed on the local dumplings and want to get active then hire a kayak and take a paddle on the crystal clear waters around Cat Ba island. It’s a great way to explore the caves, coves and beaches which you just can’t reach on a boat tour.
A lot of the multiday La Han Bay cruises will include a kayak tour as part of their activities. There are also a few local tour companies offering guided kayak or paddleboard tours around the island.
If you fancy exploring independently, check if you can get access to kyaks at your accommodation. Otherwise, there are several tour companies in Cat Ba town who hire them out with all the kit.
Ask for their advice on routes to take and have an idea of where you are going to avoid paddling into the path of the local ferry!
11. Get Some Chill Time at the Cat Ba Beaches
If you fancy some downtime on Cat Ba island then head towards one of the many sandy beaches or bays.
South of Cat Ba town, you’ll find Cat Co 1, 2 and 3 hidden in coves along the coast. You can use the beaches in the daytime but they are owned by resorts which will charge you a small fee to park your motorbike.
It’s also worth checking out Tung Thu beach west of Cat Ba island for a quieter option. Just be wary of the waves here as it is less sheltered from the sea than the Cat Co beaches.
Don’t forget if you are heading over to Monkey Island then there are also two good beaches there to enjoy.
12. Venture into Liên Minh (Butterfly Valley)
If you have the time to make a little detour from the main highway on Cat Ba island then check out the Butterfly Valley. This dead-end valley is a popular spot with rock climbers thanks to all the limestone crags to scramble up and down.
You can hire climbing equipment and grab a permit to climb locally if you fancy giving it a go yourself.
Even if climbing isn’t your thing, it’s just a nice tranquil spot to explore on the island away from the tourist crowds. See how many butterflies you can count!
How to Get to Cat Ba Island
There are several different ways you can travel to Cat Ba island from the mainland which can get confusing. Your options will depend on where you are starting from and your budget.
Top Tip: Avoid booking onto the tourist boats to Cat Ba island. They are slow and expensive compared to the options below. Plus the guides will try and pressure sell you additional tourist activities.
Hanoi to Cat Ba Island
If you are coming to Cat Ba island from Hanoi the easiest and most direct option is to book a direct bus. A journey one-way costs from 330,000 VND per adult a takes just over 3 hours.
This bus journey takes you from the centre of Hanoi down to Cat Hai in around 2 hours. Then it’s a 10-minute speedboat ride over to Cat Ba island and finally a 45-minute drive across the island to Cat Ba Town.
Sapa to Cat Ba Island
We took a nighttime sleeper bus down from Sapa to the coast and got dropped off near the road over to Tuan Chau Island. From here you can grab a taxi down to the pier and take the regular public ferry over to Cat Ba Island.
This is a good option if you have already visited Hanoi or plan to later and down want to skip spending more time in the busy city centre.
Riding to Tuan Chau Island is also a good option if you are travelling to Cat Ba on a motorbike.
Ninh Binh to Cat Ba Island
If you are travelling towards Cat Ba island from the south and want to avoid going via Hanoi then you can get an express bus from Ninh Binh. This will take you to Hai Phong where you can then make your way down to the ferry terminal for the express boat to Cat Ba Town.
For all our transport bookings in Vietnam, we used the local transport service 12GoAsia. It’s easy to search, get prices and book in a few clicks. You can show the tickets on your smartphone so there’s no need to search around for an internet cafe to print them!
Where to Stay on Cat Ba Island
Our advice is to avoid staying in the main Cat Ba town. The town is a bit of a tourist hot spot for locals, very crowded and noisy compared to the rest of the island. If you’ve made the effort to get here why not stay somewhere surrounded by nature?
Here are some suggestions for the best places to stay on Cat Ba Island to escape the world for a few days.
Cat Ba Eco-Lodge Resort: If you want to get away from it all this is a great spot to stay close to Cat Ba National Park.
Lan Ha Floating House: You can’t get much closer to the water than this. Stay on a floating platform just off the coast of Cat Ba Island for the ultimate local experience.
Green Homestay: A good budget option just outside of Cat Ba Town with a tasty breakfast included. The large bungalows can sleep several people making it a great value option for small groups.