Vietnam Part 4: Cat Ba Island

With a first glimpse of Vietnam we left Tam Coc and headed to Cat Ba. The bus company we booked beforehand forgot to pick us up at the centre of town, where we had been waiting for an hour. On the second scheduled bus they apologised with a discount, claiming their first vehicle had a flat tire, which was hard to believe, as we didn’t pick up anyone else from said bus. The four hour road trip itself was ok, although there was only one break after two and a half hours.

At first glance, Cat Ba was pretty touristy. Tall but shallow hotel buildings stood close to each other and where there was still space, a construction site was already appearing from nowhere. Unfortunately, our hotel was definitely not one of Cat Ba’s best. A muggy smell of mold hit our noses by the time we took the elevator to the fifth floor and the room had a damp climate higher than the jungle. Without regret, we switched hotels and looked for some vegan food to lift our spirits. We ended up at the rooftop terrace of “Mona”, a restaurant not only with one of the best views in Cat Ba, but also a few vegan options to chose from.

Noodles with vegetables at "Mona Restaurant" in Cat Ba

After lunch we tried to escape the tourist hot-spots – without success. At the small harbour we were hoping to find out more about the boat trips that were heavily advertised in town. We were after a small or even a private tour, not the big party boats everyone was trying to get us on to. Without progress, we drove past the “Cannon Fort”, an old lookout point from the Vietnam / American War, that is nowadays famous for its sunset view.

The "Bai Tam" Beach

While the sun was preparing for sunset, we wanted to take a look at the beach. We didn’t plan so much time on the shores during our trip in North Vietnam, so we wanted to have a little beach time whenever possible. A security checkpoint and an overcrowded parking lot later, we found ourselves walking on sand. A strange feeling. It was a small beach in front of a chic resort, popular amongst tourists who like to sleep on paid deck chairs all day if they’re not out there on a cruise ship. Wait, there were also no parking fees. Were we even still in Vietnam?

At the end of the bay, stairs led up the hills inviting for a short walk with great views of the karst mountains in the sea. Here, locals gathered together to do bodyweight exercices when the heat slowly disappeared with the sun and one could actually do sports.

Sunset on Cat Ba Island

The "Casa Bonita"

That evening we got the last free table on Casa Bonita’s rooftop, a popular western style restaurant in one of the quiet streets of Cat Ba. A tofu burger with fries, a banana-leaf salad and vegetables with rice and peanuts were soon after devoured.

At "Casa Bonita" we also found our breakfast

The Cat Ba National Park

One of the reasons to go to Cat Ba was the National Park, which is basically the whole island except for the small town in the south. After an early and unexpectedly expensive breakfast at Casa Bonita (a very small Smoothie-bowl for 90.000 VND – 3,40€) we made our way on the scooter to the Park. It’s highly recommended to start early, as many guided tour groups will arrive during the day.

There are two main trails. One offers a short but steep hike to the mountain top and the other one takes about 6 hours to reach a village and later a boat on the shore that takes you back to town. We chose the shorter path with the stunning view over the National Park and did not regret it. The peak was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip. Above the trees we saw a peaceful panorama of lush green jungle hills that invited us to stay for a while. The ascend had been adventurous, especially up to the second peak, when the stairs became only a collection of tall rocks and sharp edges. Needless to say, an exhausting climb through the jungle under the scorching sun demands good footwear and lots of water, so be prepared. We didn’t see as much wildlife as in the Cuc Phuong National Park, although we came across a mantis, a few well camouflaged lizards, squirrels, lots of butterflies and the mandatory giant spiders in their huge webs. 

After the hike we made a trip to the north of the island. The National Park is exceptionally quiet, even during the day. We stopped at the harbor at the very end of the island. There’s the possibility again to take a two hour boat tour for 400.000 VND. Given that the light conditions during the day were not what we imagined for our photos, we headed back to Cat Ba Town, this time on the road along the shore.

Small bamboo boat near the northern harbour

Legendary Burger at "Buddha Belly"

Late lunch was at Buddha Belly, a vegetarian Restaurant in Cat Ba. Our huge appetite got us to order immediately two dishes: a noodle soup and a huge burger. The portions were definitely bigger than what we were used to and in the end, we had a hard time to eat everything. However, we’d totally recommend Buddha Belly, as the food was delicious!

Buddha belly vegan burger
Super delicious burger at "Buddha Belly" in Cat Ba

Sunset at the "Cannon Fort"

As we already mentioned, Cannon Fort offers a great view of the Lan Ha Bay, especially during sunset. The place is an old overlook point from the American / Vietnam War and has been turned into an open air museum like exhibition that everyone seemed to rush by in order to get to the best spot for sunset. That said “best spot” was simply overcrowded and also disappointing. After two unsatisfied walks through the fort, we took our scooter and started heading back. On the way, we stopped and found a much better location to shoot the bay, which was by now covered in warm, red light.

The entrance fee to Fort Cannon cost 40.000 VND (1,50€) per person. It’s not really an insider tip, as the hotel staff and everyone else we met in Cat Ba recommended us to go there in the evening. With so many people packed in a small place, you cannot expect a romantic sunset, but the way up the hill still offers a good alternative.

The Lan Ha Bay submerged in warm light

"Yummy" - a traditional vietnamese Restaurant

“Yummy” is the well deserved name of a small and affordable restaurant that is popular amongst locals and tourists alike. For little money we ate plenty of vietnamese dishes, but definitely got an overdose of garlic. The staff speaks English fluently and is not new to vegan food. We especially liked the fried tofu.

In the next part we’ll tell you how we organized our private boat trip through Lan Ha Bay and show you why it is worth it to get up early in the morning.

Jessica
Author

Vietnam Travel Log

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