Cat Ba Island
Posted Date: 3/6/201310:28 AM


Except for a few fertile pockets, the fertile pocket is too rocky for serious agriculture; most residents earn their living from the sea, while others cater to the tourist trade. Life has always been hard here and many Cat Ba resident joined the exodus of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and 80s. Although the island lost much of its fishing fleet this way, overseas Vietnamese have sent back large amounts of money to relatives on the island, fuelling the hotel boom of the past decade. Cat Ba is still relatively laid-back, despite about a 20-fold increase in hotel rooms (and karaoke machines!) since 1996.

Almost half of Cat Ba Island (which has 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 eco- systems. These include 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 a few sandy beaches hidden away in small coves. 

There are numerous lakes, waterfalls and grottoes in the spectacular limestone hills, the highest of which rises 331m above sea level. The largest permanent body of water on the island is Ech Lake, which covers an area of 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, which creates a shortage of fresh water during the dry season. 

The waters off Cat Ba Island are home to 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusk and 400 species of arthropod. Larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin.
Ho Chi Minh paid a visit to Cat Ba Island on 1 April 1951 and there is a large annual festival on the island to commemorate the event. A monument to Uncle Ho stands on Mountain No 1, the hillock opposite the pier in Cat Ba town. 

The best weather on Cat Ba Island is from late September to November, particularly the latter, when the air and water temperature is mild and skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler, but still pleasant. From February to April rain is common, while the summer months, from June through August, are hot and humid. This is also peak season and the island is overrun with Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi and beyond. 

Cat Ba National Park 
This accessible national park  is home to 32 types of mammals – including langurs, wild boar, deer, squirrels and hedgehogs – and more than 70 species of birds have been sighted, including hawks, hombills and cuckoos. The golden-headed langur is officially the world’s most endangered primate with just 60 left in the park. Cat Ba lies on a major migration route for waterfowl, which feed and roost on the beaches in the mangrove forests. There are 745 species of plants recorded on Cat Ba, including 118 timber species and 160 plants with medicinal value. The park is also home to a species of tree called Cay Kim Gao. In ancient days, kings and nobles would eat only with chopsticks made from this timber, as anything poisonous it touches is reputed to turn the light-colored wood to black. 

-  Two caves in and around the national park are open to visitors. 
Hospital Cave oozes historical significance, as it served as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American War. This cave is actually just outside the park and the entrance is located about 2 kilometers along the road to Cat Ba town. 
Trung Trang Cave (Hang Trong Tram)is easily accessible, but you will need to contact a ranger to make sure it is open. Bring a torch (flashlight) as it is gloomy inside. 

There is a challenging 18km hike through the park and up to one of the mountain summits. Arrange a guide for this six-hour hike, and organize a bus or boat transport to the trailhead and a boat to get back to town of this can be easily organized with rangers at the national park headquarters or at the hotels in Cat Ba if you’re traveling independently. Many hikes end at Viet Hai, a remote minority village just outside the park boundary, from where boats shuttle to Cat Ba town (about 250,000d per boat) Don’t get stranded or you’ll get stiffed. Take proper hiking shoes, a raincoat and a generous supply of water for this hike. Independent hikers can buy basic snacks at the in Viet Hai, which is where many hiking groups stop for lunch. This is not an easy walk, and is much harder and more slippery after rain. There are shorter hiking options that are less hard core. If you’re planning to join an organized tour from Hanoi, check the trekking options before you book, as many of the cheaper trips don’t actually hike through the park at all. 

Beaches 
The white-sand Cat Co beaches (simple Cat Co I, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) used great places to lounge around for the day. However, 1 and 3 have been taken off new resorts, leaving Cat Co 2 as the only sane and safe haven. There is also simple accommodation here. It is accessible via a wooden cliff side walkway around the mountain Cat Co 1. 
On weekends the beaches fill up Vietnamese tourists and litter becomes a real blight, but during the week the crowds diminish. 
The beaches are about 1 km southeast from Cat Ba town over a steep headland, can be reached on foot or by motorbike 
Other beaches include Cai Vieng, Hong Xoai Be and Hong Xoai Lon.

Cat Ba Town
A sleepy fishing village just a decade ago, it is now the Costa del Cat Ba! Since being “discovered” by the Hanoi residents. Cat Ba has turned into a highly popular summer getaway, filling up on weekends and holidays, when the town is jumping. This has been a boon for the range of  amenities available, from hotels to restaurants, but the downside is a boom in karaoke joints and the tuneless wailing they often emit. During the summer the town also fills up with cars, as Hanoi residents use the car ferries to come via Cat Hai. Weekdays are saner, as is just before or just after the peak summer season.

INFORMATION
Internet Access

There are now several internet cafés in Cat Ba. Price tend to be higher than the mainland and the connections quiet slow. There are a couple of places to the southeast of the boat pier, plus one or two on “hotel alley”.
Money 
Remarkably, there are still no banks on Cat Ba Island, The nearest ATMs are in Haiphong or Halong City.

Post 
The main post office (1-4 Str) is a one-stop-shop for postal needs and telephone calls.
Tourist Information
There is now an official Tourism Information & Development Centre (Tel: 688 215 – Add: 1-4 Str), located almost opposite the boat pier in Cat Ba town. The staff here can bring you up to speed on transport options in and around Cat Ba, plus it has Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve maps available. 
Most guesthouses and hotels can ‘help’ with tourist information (booking you on their trips, in other words). 

SLEEPING 
Over the past few years the number of accommodation offerings in Cat Ba has risen 
dramatically to keep pace with an ever-expanding tourist market. Look around, as the quality of hotels varies widely. There are now a couple of upmarket resorts in prime beachfront locations for those with the money to spend. 
Most hotels are situated on the waterfront in Cat Ba town. The ones to the east, built right up against the hillside, tend to offer better cross-breezes and less of the karaoke call-girl scene. Most hotels have at least one staff member who speaks English. 

During the slower winter months (October to April) you can find decent rooms. The rates given here are for low season, when there’s usually the opportunity for negotiation. It is impossible to quote high-season rates, as they tend to pick a number out of their head depending on demand. 

EATING 
Sumptuous seafood is the smart choice in Cat Ba town and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from along the seafront strip. 
The restaurant of choice in Cat Ba, the chef here learnt his tricks at Bobby Chinn’s in Hanoi. The alluring menu includes a selection of smaller appetizers if you just can’t settle on one thing. The braised duck is superb but save some space for the delightful desserts. The interior is all drapes and candles, so customers often linger for cocktails. 

DRINKING 
One of the most enjoyable ways to spend time in the evening is to sit at tables on the water- front towards the eastern end of the harbor, order a drink from one of the stalls, and watch the world go by. 

Noble House 
As well as a popular restaurant downstairs, this spot has a great 2nd-floor bar. Comfy chairs and inspired decor help people settle in for the evening, plus there’s a free pool table, board games and plenty of drinks flowing. 

Flightless Bird Cafe 
Add: B 1-4 – Open: from 6.30pm
Little more than a hole in the wall, this small, welcoming place is a good option for those with their drinking boots on and as the night wears on, travelers gravitate. There is a breezy 2nd-floor balcony overlooking the harbor, plus a small book exchange. 

GETTING THERE & AWAY
Cat Ba Island is 45km east of Haiphong and 20km south of Halong City. Be aware that there are several piers on Cat Ba Island. Most handy is the jetty directly in front of Cat Ba town from where the hydrofoils to Haiphong depart. A second popular one is at Ben Beo, about 2km from Cat Ba town where most of the tourist boats berth. The other pier is at Phu Long, 30km from Cat Ba, where boats from Cat Hai arrive. At Phu Long, motorbike rivers wait to whisk passengers from the ferries to town (or the 15km to Cat Ba National Park). There is also a public bus that meets the boats, but this takes longer o get across the island.

The best option for independent travelers is the hydrofoils linking Cat Ba directly to Haiphong. These air-con rockets reduce the journey to just 45 minutes. There are several companies running the route, with three departures a day in the high summer season and just once a day the rest of the year. Summer season services depart between 10 am and 5 pm. Transtour (Tell: 888 314) runs the Mekong express (100,000d, 2.45pm departure), which is the safest and most comfortable option. Tahaco (Tel: 031-374 7055) has smaller hydrofoils, which are cheaper at 70,000d and depart at 3.15pm. There are no longer hydrofoils operating to Halong City. 
The easiest way to get from Halong City to Cat Ba is to hop on the tourist boats that leave several times a day. This is less organized going in the other direction to Halong City, but your guesthouse or hotel should be able to hook you up with a boat going that way. 

There are also plenty of slow, chartered tourist boats making the run from Halong City to Cat Ba Island; check with the cafes and travel agencies in Hanoi about tour options. Such trips generally include all transport, accommodation, food and a guide, but double check to be sure. An alternative way to reach Cat Ba town is via the island of Cat Hai, which is closer to Haiphong. 

A boat departs Haiphong and makes a brief stop in Cat Hai on the way to the port of Phu Long on Cat Ba Island. It is also possible to drive a motorbike or car to Haiphong, from where you can get the ferry to Cat Hai, then drive 15 minutes across the island to a pier from where you take a ferry to Phu Long. This accounts for all those sur- real traffic jams during the summer season. A bridge is under construction to Cat Hai which will make Cat Ba even easier to reach by vehicle. There are also direct buses from Hanoi to Cat Ba town. Hoang Long bus operates four services daily to Cat Ba from the Luong Yen bus station. However, it is just as easy to use the bus-hydrofoil combination via Haiphong. 

GETTING AROUND
Rented bicycles are a great way to explore the island and many of the hotels can arrange Chinese mountain bikes There are also some tandems available for double the pedal power. 
Minibuses with driver are easily arranged. Motorbike rentals (with or without a driver are available from most of the hotels (from US$5 without a driver). If you are heading out to the beaches or national park, pay the parking fee to ensure that the bike is still there when you return: there have been reports o theft and vandalism. 
You’ll get plenty of offers to tour Cat Bi Harbor in a rowboat or you can hire a kayak from one of the hotels. 
Tours of the island and national park, boat trips around Halong Bay and fishing trips an peddled by nearly every hotel and restaurant in Cat Ba.
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