The Cat Ba archipelago in northern Vietnam is a popular choice for weekend travellers.
The main island is located just south of Ha Long Bay and boasts a large number of beaches and one of the most precious wildlife communities in the country.
To get there, you need to travel to Hai Phong, around 100 kilometers from Hanoi. Catch a bus from Gia Lam in Long Bien District or Yen Nghia in Ha Dong for VND80,000, or a little under US$4 a person.
Once in the Hai Phong, Cat Ba is 60 kilometers away – either by hydrofoil (VND220,000 for 45 minutes) or save a one-way ferry (VND17,000 for between one and a half to two hours).
The island has three-wheeled vehicles to take tourists around. Each ten-seat vehicle can be booked for VND200,000 a tour.
Because Cat Ba is usually a weekend destination, one can save themselves from crowds, the frustration of finding no rooms or the embarrassment of bursting out at service distractions, by coming during weekdays.
Rooms are available in a wide range of quality. The cheapest cost between VND300,000-700,000 each. Coats should be brought along as the island is cold at night.
Most hotels serve foods, but visitors can still dine out or buy fresh catches from local markets and pay the hotels to put them on dishes. Doing that saves between VND100,000-150,000 compared to eating from hotels’ menu.
Several floating restaurants around the island serves eight-dish course for VND100,000. Make sure you try all Cat Ba specialties, like jellyfish salad or grilled oysters (the kind that bleeds inside the shells and thus the name bloody oysters – sò huyết), for a start.
Now let’s swim down to business: there are three beaches around five to ten minutes walk from the island center, called Cat Co Number 1, 2, and 3.
Number 2 is praised the most beautiful of them all, but number 3 is the biggest and most crowded.
Or you can set sail to the nearby islands for more pristine beaches.
A one-way trip to Khi (Monkey) island takes 30 to 45 minutes by boats, which are available for rent at between VND500,000-700,000.
Cat Ong is nearer, taking 20 minutes and around VND300,000 of boat travel, and offers even less spoiled water.
The island is said to be where you can see the most beautiful sunset on the archipelago.
Most services in the island are manipulated by middlemen, so you have to get the prices right before taking any offers.
Visitors can receive invitation to go squid fishing at night, but remember the Red Riding Hood lesson: “Don’t talk to (go out at night with) strangers.”
Cat Ba national park is a must-visit.
The UNESCO biosphere reserve costs less than a dollar, around VND15,000, for one to enter and see the wide wild world of 741 flora species and 282 fauna species, many of them precious.
The park was established in 1986 and is now home to the critically endangered white-headed langur that is endemic to Cat Ba and among the rarest primates on Earth, the newly-found hunch-bat that has the peculiar leaf nose and a rare leopard gecko which has large eyes like cats’ and stripes along its length.
Two latter species were officially documented by the World Wide Fund for Nature this year, among the list of 367 new species discovered in the Greater Mekong Subregion in 2012 and 2013.
A fortress, built by Vietnamese soldiers during the 1940s, offers a panoramic view from 177 meters high.
Two canons of tens of tons each still stand there as war relics.
Like most beach destinations in Vietnam, the island also has plenty of souvenirs like sea-shell jewelries and key chains, seafood packages and local fish sauce, to bring home as gifts.
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