Cat Ba Island is growing in popularity on the backpackers’ circuit thanks to its relative seclusion, cheap prices and prime location close to Halong Bay. Adventure sport eco-tourism enthusiasts like Cat Ba for its wild and rugged geography and many opportunities for thrill-seeking while partied-out travellers like it for its laid-back vibe, deserted beaches and easily accessible local villages.
Using Cat Ba Island as your home base gives you the flexibility to choose only a daytime boat tour if staying overnight on a cruiser isn’t exactly your thing. I would advise that sleeping out in the open water is an experience not to be missed but it’s just nice to have the choice, isn’t it?
During your stay on Cat Ba there are plenty of attractions to help you fill a few days or even a few weeks, most of which will involve trekking or riding a motorbike through the national park that covers most of the island. Aside from telling you to visit as many of the attractions as possible, including the historic Hospital Cave and Cannon Fort, here are a few hints and tips for backpackers to get the most out of Cat Ba.
It is possible to get to both Halong City and Cat Ba Island under your own steam. Most travellers start their journey in Hanoi as it’s the nearest big city in the North of Vietnam. First, you need to make your way to Luong Yen bus terminal and buy either a combined Bus-Boat ticket from Hanoi to Cat Ba, which leaves around every 2-3 hours and costs around $12 or take a regular bus to the city of Hai Phong, a taxi to the city’s ship port and ask a friendly captain to board his boat to Cat Ba. I know this sounds crazy but it has been done!
The beaches of Cat Ba can hardly be called tourist traps. Although the main beach has recently been ‘developed’ with a few concrete hotels on the main bay, the other small coves are almost secluded with no hawkers, no tour groups and certainly no McDonalds.
Internet opinion seems to state that beach Number 2, south east of Cat Ba town is the best. Last time I checked lying on the beach was still free, so you can guarantee a cheap trip by just finding a spot, enjoying the sunshine and catching up on all the reading you didn’t get done in Hanoi.
Cat Ba Island has a handful of hostels catering to the backpacker crowd, most of which have positive reviews. Most of the more basic, budget hotels can be found just off the waterfront of Cat Ba Town, but hotels are popping up all over this tiny island including the previously isolated La Han Bay.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Mr Zooms has only six rooms it comes out on top based on customer ratings. Mr Zooms is ten minutes from the beach and has restaurant on site. Cat Ba Hostel is known for being a very cheap and very cheerful option for staying on Cat Ba Island while Green Cat Ba Hostel gets mixed reviews due to its hit-and-miss facilities.
Cafes and Restaurants
As with any destination, the best way to keep your costs down and your enjoyment up is to eat and drink where the locals do. Cat Ba Island has its own market which is a great place to grab a bite to eat. If you step slightly away from the main strip on beach road you’re more likely to find cheap options and more like-minded folk. It’s a great idea to eat like this during the day when you’re busy exploring the island and happy just to grab a bite on the go but when you’ve been
Travelling long term and your only home for the moment is a hostel bed, it’s nice to visit a few cafes or restaurants to eat, drink and sometimes just hang out for a few hours.
Bamboo cafe has developed a reputation for being the best budget option for eating on the seafront. International and Vietnamese food is available as are the obligatory sunset cold beers. For Vietnamese food, Thao May is a good choice and is favoured by ex-pats who came to Cat Ba Island once and found they couldn’t leave.
Family-run, Thao May is also a good spot for a cheap beer. Phyong Nung is a good place to hit in the mornings if you don’t want to bother with the basic breakfast they’re serving at the hostel. Set yourself up for the day with a big bowl of Pho Bo.