Cat Ba Island – Gateway to Halong Bay

I want to share with you a gem of a destination – a beautiful island off the coast of North Vietnam – called Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba Island is not particularly well-known by visitors to Destinations in Vietnam as many tourists will prioritise Hanoi and Sapa and Ninh Binh and head directly to the scenic and world famous Halong Bay.

Yet Cat Ba Island is the undiscovered gateway to Halong Bay and the largest island of a group of over 300 small islands in the archipelago that makes up the UNESCO sites of Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay.

Cat Ba Island, with its steamy jungle covered interior, is a great place to hike and explore caves and grottos and its shores are surrounded by emerald green waters with towering limestone karsts that soar majestically from the sea.

In Cat Ba Town there is an enclave of homestays and hotels and bars and restaurants and coffee shops and a pretty pedestrian promenade.

There is so much to do and to enjoy on Cat Ba Island, I recommend you spend at least several days there, being just as active or as lazy as you like.

The backpacking husband and I stayed on Cat Ba a whole wonderful week.

Cat Ba Island North Vietnam is surrounded by emerald green waters with towering limestone karsts that soar majestically from the sea. Janice Horton
Stunningly beautiful Cat Ba Island. Photo by Janice Horton

We normally make a point of travelling slowly. This trip through Vietnam had started in the south in Ho Chi Minh City and on the Mekong Delta before we travelled onto the central regions of Danang and Hoi An and Hue.

We were so charmed by Cat Ba that it made sense for us to stay for a full week and enjoy everything the area had to offer us.

Most Halong Bay hotels can be booked online.

We stayed in a wonderful small family run homestay called (their FB Page) Bao Phuc Hotel.

We booked using (affiliate link) Booking Dotcom and our room with breakfast at a total cost of just over £100 or around $120 for the whole week.

Since this trip, I’ve been able to recommend Cat Ba Island to many other travellers as a fabulous travel destination in its own right, but also as as a little-known alternative and affordable gateway into Halong Bay.

Travel with me to Cat Ba Island!

I heart Cat Ba sign The Backpacking Housewife
CAT BA ISLAND NORTH VIETNAM - GATEWAY TO HALONG BAY #vietnam #vietnamtravel #catbaisland


It’s really easy to reach Cat Ba Island from either of the cities of Hanoi or Hai Phong.

If you have a fancy budget then you could take a seaplane or a helicopter but if, like me, you’re travelling on a budget then an affordable bus is a great option and easy to arrange with a local tour operator.

We flew directly into Hai Phong (Cat Ba Airport) on a budget flight and booked our onward transport by bus/ferry/bus to Cat Ba Town and to our hotel using a well organised local company I can recommend to you (not a paid link) called Good Morning Cat Ba.

When we visited last November, the new Cat Ba Cable Car from the Tonkin Gult on the mainland over to Cat Ba Island was starting up in operation and I’m sure it will be a popular way to get to Cat Ba Island in future.

Cat Ba Island – North Vietnam


It’s important to know Cat Ba Island is not just about being the gateway to the world-famous UNESCO Halong Bay as there are many other fabulous things to do on Cat Ba Island. Let me show you!



1. Take a boat trip or a cruise out to Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay.

Sailing on Halong Bay has been a dream of mine for many years. A couple of years ago, during my first time in Vietnam, I’d tried to make my dream of a Halong Bay cruise a reality but at the time found organising the trip prohibitively expensive.

This time, however, using Cat Ba Island as my gateway to Halong Bay and booking a day trip locally to facilitate my dream it became possible at last to sail on Halong Bay affordably!

The experience of seeing for myself one of the most beautiful places on earth will stay with me forever.

HALONG BAY NORTH VIETNAM #vietnam #vietnamtravel #halong #catbaisland

2. Go kayaking through the sea caves on Lan Ha Bay.

Kayaking through the sea caves was a real highlight of our time in this area.

The sea caves were formed millions of years ago and have been sculpted into small grottoes, expansive caverns, and intricate caves and arches by the constant pounding of the sea.

Some caves are accessible by kayak or boat while others may only be accessible during low tide or by swimming or with favourable Halong Bay weather.

Many have hidden beaches or secluded lagoons inside them.

We explored the sea caves by kayak as part of an organised tour.

Cat Ba Island - Kayaking through sea caves at Lan Ha Bay
Kayaking through sea caves at Lan Ha Bay

3. Take a hike through Cat Ba’s jungle interior and National Park.

Cat Ba’s National Park was established in 1986 as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and covers a significant portion of Cat Ba Island. It offers access to lush tropical forests, limestone karsts, caves, and coastline.

The jungle Interior is teeming with a variety of flora and fauna and wildlife, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

The Nation Park is also a sanctuary for the rare ‘golden-headed’ Cat Ba langur – a type of monkey – now critically endangered and only found on Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba National Park offers several hiking trails that vary in difficulty and a popular route includes the Ngu Lam Peak Trail, which leads to a scenic viewpoint.

Cat Ba National Park offers several hiking trails

4. Walk up the paved road to Cannon Fort on Cat Ba Island.

Cannon Fort is a remnant of war and an interesting great place to explore. The fort was originally constructed by the Japanese during World War II and later fortified by the French during their colonial rule in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, it served as a strategic military outpost.

There is a network of tunnels, bunkers, and gun emplacements that once housed soldiers and artillery and displays of military equipment and artefacts from the war.

But what I really appreciated more than the fort were the sweeping views over Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Town from the top of the hill.

The Backpacking Housewife at Cannon Fort Cat Ba Island
Views from Cat Ba Island over Lan Ha Bay, Photo by Janice Horton
Lan Ha Bay as seen from Cannon Fort on Cat Ba Island. Photo by Janice Horton

5. Visit the Trung Trang Cave in the heart of Cat Ba National Park.

Trung Trang Cave has been carved out of limestone over millions of years by geological erosion. The cave is about 15 km north of Cat Ba Town so we took a taxi out to the cave and our driver was happy to wait for us while we explored inside.

The cave is reached via steep steps and stretches for about 300 meters through the jungle hillside. Inside there are impressive displays of rock formations and chambers and geological formations, including stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling, and stalagmites rising up from the cave floor.

The cave’s pathways are well marked and artificially lit and so it is relatively easy and safe to explore without the fear of getting lost. Highly recommended!

Trung Trang Cave in the heart of Cat Ba National Park.
Trung Trang Cave in the heart of Cat Ba National Park

6. Visit Cat Ba Island’s beautiful beaches.

Cat Ba’s many beaches are stunningly beautiful. The sand is silky soft and pale golden in colour and the waves lapping the shore are calm and aqua marine.  

We visited Cat Co 1,2,and 3 Beaches as they are walking distance from Cat Ba Town.

But there’s also Tung Thu Beach on the south-eastern coast if you need to get away from the crowds in high season.

Other beaches might be more of a challenge to enjoy and these include:

Monkey Island Beach – named after its population of wild monkeys – is accessible by boat and worth a trip for snorkelling, kayaking, and hiking up to the viewpoints overlooking the bay.

Cat Ong Beach – is for those seeking peace and solitude on a secluded stretch of coastline surrounded by lush greenery on the eastern side of Cat Ba Island.

Nam Cat Island Beach – is on the southwest of Cat Ba Island and offers a pristine beach with calm waters and stunning views of Lan Ha Bay where you can enjoy swimming, snorkelling, and beach volleyball, as well as overnight stays in beachfront bungalows.

Cat Dua Beach – also known as Coconut Beach – is a remote and undeveloped beach offering a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of tourist areas. Accessible by boat or challenging hike you will be rewarded with its untouched natural beauty.

Cat Ba Island Beaches by The Backpacking Housewife
Cat Ba Island Beaches

7. Enjoy Cat Ba’s local and delicious North Vietnamese food!

Cat Ba offers a delicious variety of local dishes that showcase the flavours of the region at affordable prices and given Cat Ba’s coastal location, seafood is abundant and a highlight of the local cuisine.

We enjoyed mantis shrimp and grilled oysters and the island’s famous seafood hotpot (lau hai san) at Yummy Restaurant.

Freshly caught fish, shrimp, crab, squid, and shellfish are commonly featured in dishes such as grilled seafood, seafood noodles (bun hai san) and fried seafood spring rolls (nem hai san).

Cá Sặc Nướng (Grilled Cuttlefish): Cuttlefish is a popular delicacy and grilled cuttlefish marinated with spices and grilled to perfection, resulting in a flavourful and tender seafood treat.

Cá Hồi Nướng (Grilled Salmon): Salmon farming is prevalent in the area and a favourite among locals and visitors. Fresh salmon fillets are marinated and grilled over charcoal to give a smoky flavour to the fish.

Bún Cá (Fish Noodle Soup): A comforting and flavourful dish that features rice noodles in a fragrant fish broth, topped with pieces of fried fish, fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and sometimes shrimp paste. It’s a popular choice for breakfast or lunch.

Bánh Đa Cua (Crab Noodle Soup): This noodle soup features rice noodles in a savoury broth made from crab meat and bones, seasoned with herbs and spices. It’s typically served with fresh crab meat, fried tofu, and various garnishes.

Nem Cua Bể (Fried Crab Spring Rolls): These crispy and savoury spring rolls are filled with a mixture of crab meat, minced pork, vermicelli noodles, and vegetables, then deep-fried until golden brown. They’re often served with dipping sauce and fresh herbs.

Nộm Hải Sản (Seafood Salad): A salad made with a mix of fresh seafood such as shrimp, squid, and fish combined with shredded green papaya, herbs, peanuts, and a tangy dressing made from lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar.

Gỏi Cá Trích (Mackerel Salad): This fish salad features shredded mackerel mixed with fresh herbs, lime juice, chili, and other seasonings. It’s a zesty and flavourful appetizer or side dish.

Cat Ba Island Gateway to Halong Bay. Given Cat Ba’s coastal location, seafood is abundant and a highlight of the local cuisine. Cat Ba Food is delicious nutritious and affordable.
Cat Ba Food is delicious nutritious and affordable


The best time to visit Cat Ba Island in Vietnam is generally during the dry season, which runs from November to April.

During this time, the weather is typically warm and sunny, with minimal rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, and beach exploration.

The months of December to February are considered the peak tourist season, so expect larger crowds during these months.

However, if you prefer fewer tourists and don’t mind a bit of rain, you might also consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of May to October.

Just be aware that this period may experience occasional rainfall due to the monsoon season, particularly from July to September.

The backpacking husband and I visited in November at the very start of the dry season and before the crowds of high season.

When we were there it was overcast most days and occasionally we had a bit of rain but it was still pleasantly warm. It was great for hiking without getting overheated but I could also still walk along the beaches and swim in the sea without feeling cold.

It was also really great to have an uncrowded boat on the day of our boat trip to Lan Ha and Halong Bays.


Is Vietnam on your travel wish list?

Have you ever been to Cat Ba?

Have you ever heard of Cat Ba Island?

Let me know in the comment box!

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