A Day out on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

With the goal of getting a bit behind the scenes of Halong Bay, we decided to set up shop for a couple days in the heart of the famous islands of Vietnam in a place called Cat Ba.  The island of Cat Ba might not be what you expect.  In many ways, it’s a resort town paradise.  There are lots of nice beaches, cheap hotels, and some interesting sights as well.  But I suppose the part that is not to be expected is the complete and utter lack of tourists.  The number one thing I think you should know before visiting Halong Bay is that Cat Ba is the perfect way to gain a bit of independence in what is otherwise a very touristy region.

Catba, VietnamCatba Island, Vietnam-3

Slightly after dawn, we take the keys to a couple scooters and head off down the coast of Cat Ba.  Without any real destination in mind, we just drive.  Along through the busy town, and out onto the coast, we putt along.  In the waters offshore, the occasional fishing boat can be seen floating slowly through the ice-blue water, amid a myriad of rocky pillars.  But here on the land, there are but a few settlements, and the true rural nature of the island rules.

The road smooths after a section of dirt and rock and we soon find ourselves skimming along a wash of mangroves on which the occasional stilt shelter is built.  We pull up to a lookout tower, and peer out to a sea, and to the alluvial plains of the island.  The geography of it all is spectacular.

Catba, Vietnam, Brendan van Son Catba, Vietnam Catba, Vietnam, scooter

Again twisting at the throttle of the scooter, we turn up a hill inland and down into a valley of giant stone hedges.  They look like canine teeth peering out from the green forest.  We enter Cat Ba National Park, a hilly forest smack in the center of the island.  It’s here where the extremely endangered Cat Ba Langur lurks.  I have dreams of seeing one of these rare primates, only to start climbing through the trails wound in thick forest of twisted vines to realize how silly it would be to expect to see and animal so small in a jungle so vast.

Catba, Vietnam, Catba, Vietnam, buffalo

The path carves through rock passages and the trail narrows then climbs.  Steps are laid out, then a rusted out metal ladder is pressed upon a cliff wall too steep to step up.  As the jungle canopy opens to a sky of blue, we reach our climax.  Atop one of the highest peaks on Cat Ba Island, there is a tower some 75 feet high, swaying gently in the wind.  A sign warns that climbing is forbidden, that it’s dangerous, but I can’t resist.  Gingerly, I step up the rusty tower, some of the metal has been worn so hard it has all but turned to sand.  As I look down through my feet to the ground below, I sense a wave of vertigo.  As I force my eyes up to the horizon, the unsteadiness in my knees is replaces by awe as I peer out at the vastness of the island.  Out in the distance, the hills roll like the spine of a dinosaur.  It’s endless green upon green.

Catba, Vietnam, Catba National Park Catba, Vietnam Catba, Vietnam

On Cat Ba Island, I’m again reminded a lesson I so often need to be told.  Getting off the beaten path is up to me.  I can just to flow with the currents of the rest of the travellers out there, or I can take swim to the side and enjoy the peak and beauty of this wild river’s eddy.  It doesn’t take much to get off the beaten path, just a little bit of energy, and the desire to explore.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. This place looks stunning and so untouched. After reading this I don’t think I could visit Vietnam without going to Cat Ba Island. Great post and photos Brendan.

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  2. Thanks for the tip! We will be heading to Vietnam in a couple weeks and will definitely be looking into Cat Ba.

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  3. We love going off the beaten path, with kids! 🙂 We have been living in Spain for 19 months and purchased a car to ensure we did just that, off the beaten path. In a few months we will hop on over to Southeast Asia and I am looking for inspiration on where to spend our time. Thanks to this, I will be sure to put Vietnam on our list. I was sure of Cambodia, but wasn’t so sure about Vietnam. Do you see much budget accommodation for a family of 4. I know you aren’t likely looking for that, but thought you may have seen other families lugging around their kids. thanks!

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  4. Wir waren im Januar vor drei Jahren in Vietnam und besuchten auch die mystische Halong Bay. Wir erlebten dieses Juwel praktisch Touristen frei!
    Allerdings fällt mir auf,dass die alten Mahagoni Schunken mit ihren wunderbaren gemütlichen Innen Salons niergens auf deinen Fotos zu sehen sind. Gibt es sie womöglich nicht mehr?
    Das wäre ja ein Jammer!!
    Das sich in nur so kurzer Zeit soviel verändert ist einfach nur schade!!!

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  5. It must be 14 years now since we were last on Cat Ba island. It doesn’t look like it’s changed too much at all, which is nice. We hope to be back next year, love Vietnam.

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  6. Avoiding the crows is something we strive to do. I always feel uncomfortable when I’m surrounded by camera clicking tourists. It’s probably very hypocritical as I know I’m technically one myself but this sounds like a great way to experience the beauty of the region. Great pics!

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  7. Was just going to say the same thing as Alyson, another commenter. I was on Cat Ba about 8 years ago, right after I’d just moved to Thailand, and no it doesn’t seem to have changed much.

    It wasn’t my thing as I’m not a huge outdoorsy type person, but I can definitely see why someone who loves the outdoors would enjoy it as it is beautiful. I prefer cities though 🙂

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  8. Having spent some time in Vietnam and being amazed at just what a tourist magnet it is, I would have loved to have found somewhere like this far from the madding crowd! Love the pink crash hat by the way!!

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    • The pink crash hat is key, Colleen. Any other colour doesn’t protect me at all.

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  9. yeah!Cat Ba is so stunning. I visited Cat Ba but explored in a different way – cruising tour with La Pinta. I did bicycling around the village and found it so peace. I also took a tons of nice pics too.

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