So you want to go to Ha Long Bay. You’ve heard it’s one of the modern natural wonders of the world and seen travel Instagrammers share pics so drool-worthy you’re ready to pick up your passport and leave tomorrow.
I get it.
It really is THAT beautiful and more.
People interested in visiting need to understand one important distinction before you go: Ha Long Bay and Halong City are two different places. Ha Long Bay is the name of the plot of emerald green water which is home to floating limestone islands. Halong City is really just the name of the city which has capitalized on this landscape the most.
A Google search for where to stay in Ha Long Bay will actually get you results for Halong City, where you will find thousands of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, and the tourists who fill them.
That’s exactly where you don’t want to be (but you may not know that yet. Read on.)
People who want an authentic bay experience know not to stay in Halong. Real adventurers know that Cat Ba Island is the REAL place to be.
So if you want to be one of those adventurous instagrammers everyone asks for advice then don’t go to Halong City.
Go to Cat Ba Island, instead.
Why Cat Ba Island is Better than Halong Bay
Ha Long Bay was made famous by the interesting rocky features which stick out from the water. They are unique and gorgeous, but not singular to just Ha Long Bay. This modern natural wonder is found all over the northeast region of Vietnam, including Lan Ha Bay.
Lan Ha Bay is Ha Long Bay’s southern neighbor. It has the same emerald green, bathwater-temperature water and giant floating limestone karsk islands as the more famous Ha Long Bay, but because it’s farther away from the mainland is much less touristed and more natural.
Cat Ba Island is the main island on Lan Ha Bay. It’s much closer to the famous bay features than Halong City is to Ha Long Bay, so a visit to Cat Ba Island means you’ll be able to feast your eyes on the Pandora-esque landscape to your hearts content without leaving the island.
Cat Ba Island also has much fewer tourists. It’s an area that has only recently been “discovered” and so is more natural and less built up than Halong City. Cat Ba still has hotels and hostels, many restaurants, an outdoor food market, karaoke bars, and lots of things to do, but they are kept within a relatively small city center and still lacks big crowds.
The streets and restaurants are not very crowded if you plan to stick to the city center, and it’s easy to escape people all together by renting a moto and driving just a minute out of town.
If you choose to leave the city center you’ll find yourself almost immediately surrounded by natural landscape. Forests and hills on the island side, the incredible Lan Ha Bay on the water side. It seriously feels like you’ve stepped into a combo of Avatar and Jurrasic Park!
Being able to ride through such a majestic place without seeing tons of other people is such a rare gift nowadays!
Not only does Cat Ba Island have the same (but closer) landscape and is less built up than Halong Bay, there are some unique things to do here which will keep your adventurous side very busy!
So what is there to do on Cat Ba Island?
1. Take a cruise through Lan Ha Bay
Plenty of companies offer one day or overnight (2 day) trips through the bay. Tours can cost up to $150 (or more) per person, which is a great but expensive experience.
The truth is that since Cat Ba Island is so close to the bay formations you really don’t need to pay to sleep on a boat in the middle of them. It makes sense to do overnight junk boat cruises when staying in Halong since it’s too far away from the bay to see anything from the shore, but everything is so accessible on Cat Ba that you may as well save your money.
If you’re trying to save some money go on the one-day tours and stay at a hotel on the island for the night. For $20-30 per person day cruises go out for up to 12 hours and include sightseeing the most iconic places, kayaking around certain islands, and a delicious seafood lunch.
You can even just show up at Ben Beo Boat Terminal (much smaller than it sounds) and ask a local boat captain to take you around Lan Ha Bay for a few hours. It could cost around $50 for a full day, but we’re talking a private boat tour. Come on.
If you want to pre-arrange a cruise through the bay to see all of the famous sites, caves, and islands click here
! The tour is a full day and also includes kayaking. Everything is already arranged for you, which means you can enjoy your Cat Ba vacation even more.
How to take a Lan Ha Bay Cruise:
- Through your hotel. You’ll most likely be given a flyer at check-in for your hotel’s boat cruise partner. If you’re interested in the cruise you can book it directly through your hotel and they will arrange all transportation and fees.
- Through a travel agency. There are lots of adventure travel agencies on Cat Ba Island! Walk around the main street of town and you’ll see at least 7 with giant posters advertising Bay cruises.
- Go to Ben Beo boat terminal (available on Google Maps) and look around for a man waiting by a boat. Or just stand near the boats and look helpless. Someone will talk to you and you can haggle the price down to 500,000 or 1 mil dong depending on the size of your group and the boat you want to take you out.
Things to know for your Lan Ha Bay Cruise:
- Bring food and beverages. If you have booked an official Bay tour they probably include lunch, but that doesn’t always include drink. Feel free to bring beer or soda to enjoy with your meal and plenty of water to have on board during the day.
- Your boat tour cold include kayaking. This is a really wonderful way to see the landscape up close and personal! If you aren’t interested in kayaking you are welcome to stay on the boat. If you do go out be sure to stay with your guide. It may seem simple to navigate, but they know the area better than you and will be able to steer you in the right direction and keep you safe.
- Bring your camera! This really should go without saying, but oh well. It’s GORGEOUS out there and you’ll want to take all the pictures you can. Be respectful when taking pictures of locals, though. You’ll see some who are working fish farms at the floating village. They appreciate tourism, but are not side shows.
3. Go to Trung Trang Cave
The Trung Trang Cave is one of many caves on Cat Ba Island. What we love about the caves here is that, as opposed to most caves in North America, they are inside the hills! That’s right, you have to climb a ladder to get up to the cave.
Trung Trang Cave is a really special place. You get there by following directions to the National Park in the center of the island. At first you’ll ride down the park road and not see anything. Eventually you’ll see a small Trung Trang Cave “resort” on the left, where you can have a meal, drink, or rent a bed for the night. About 100m past the resort is the actual cave entrance.
You’ll pay 40,000 dong (about $1.75) per adult (kids are free) and go guide-less into the cave.
Down the main path and at the top of a set of metal stairs to your right is the cave entrance. What follows is a paved pathway in the middle of a high mountain cave. The pathway gets narrow and short at times, so anyone claustrophobic should be warned! It also weaves around stalactites, stalagmites, and columns which have been forming for millions of years.
The fact that visitors are allowed to peruse the cave without a guide is both a godsend and a concern. On the one hand it’s amazing to have such a cool place to yourself. On the other hand it’s sad that people have used this freedom as a tool for destruction.
You can tell where formations have been broken off, but the cave is generally free of graffiti or major damage.
It’s a beautiful thing to experience and one not to be missed!
How to get to Trung Trang Cave:
- Follow Google Maps to the island’s National Park. Look for the Trung Trang Cave resort on your left, then watch the for the cave entrance soon afterward.
- Take the only path in until it forks. Follow the path on the right to the metal staircase to enter the cave.
- Entrance costs 40,000 dong / adult, cash only.
What to know about the Trung Trang Cave:
- This cave does not come with a guide. You are free to wander as you see fit. Please use this freedom wisely and treat the cave with respect!
- Walking through the cave can take around 15 minutes, depending on your speed and interest.
- You exit the cave and follow a single path out of the forest which eventually ends at the Trung Trang Cave Resort. Here you can rest or buy a meal or drink before walking on the main road back to the entrance.
4. Drive around the island on a rented moto
It is so easy to rent a moto on Cat Ba Island! Just like any other town in Vietnam, you’ll find plenty of places with a fleet of motos and a sign advertising them to tourists. Show your drivers license and for 100,000 dong ($4) it’s yours for the day.
Motos almost always come with just enough gas to get to a gas station. The best way to fill up on petrol is at an official gas station, not from a bottle on the side of the road (It’s the same petrol, but they prey on tourists and will charge at least double for the petrol). It’s easy and reliable to use Google Maps to find a gas station around the island.
Follow the map of the island to find roads which will take you around the coast, to the popular beaches, through the hills, and into the national park. Go for a drive within an hour of sunset to see the beautiful colors start to form around the hills. It’s breathtaking!
Be sure to wear a helmet. You may not realize it, but it’s actually a law for adults to wear a helmet on a moto on Vietnam. 3 adults can fit on a moto (though not as comfortably). If you are riding with extra people then ask for as many helmets as you need from the rental agency and you’ll get them. It’s dangerous and stupid not to wear one, and you don’t even end up looking cool; just foolish as everyone around you knows you must be a tourist who doesn’t know the rules.
How to rent a moto on Cat Ba Island:
- Through your hotel. Most will either rent motos directly or have a partner rental agency. They can arrange to have the moto ready at the hotel whenever you need it.
- On the street. Look for signs in English advertising motos in front of hotels or street corners.
- Rentals should never cost more than 100,000 dong ($4USD) . You could even try to negotiate a cheaper price if you only need the moto for a few hours. It never hurts to ask!
What to know before renting a moto:
- Ask for as many helmets as you need and WEAR THEM!
- Ask for rain ponchos to keep with the moto in case of rain, and use it to cover the moto if you leave it outside.
- Slowly nudge the moto onto the deep sidewalk in front of hotels or restaurants to park. You can lock the helmets inside the moto’s storage bin while you’re away. You can trust the moto not to get stolen, but the helmets are a different story so keep them tight!
- It’s not rude to honk in Vietnam. Since motos are small and can take blind corners quickly, it’s actually the polite thing to do to honk a few quick times when approaching a curve or side street so other drivers or pedestrians know you’re coming.
4. Take a Boat ride to Monkey Island
Monkey island is the second largest island on Lan Ha Bay (after Cat Ba Island). It has a popular resort on one side and a public beach and restaurant on the other side.
Take a moto or town shuttle bus to Ben Beo Boat Terminal to catch any number of small, wooden cruise boats making the trek. Tell your boat driver if you’re headed to the resort for a stay, or he’ll automatically drop you on the public beach.
Once at the island you can spend time playing in the warm water off the beach. The water is always bathwater warm and usually calm. The location of the beach keeps it protected from major wind, which makes this the perfect beach for families.
Monkey Island is also home to some great hiking. Follow signs to hiking trails and prepare to climb major rocks to get to the top of the island. The paths are short but rigorous, and you must wear decent shoes to protect around the sharp rock you climb on!
The most popular thing to do on Monkey Island is to look for monkeys. Duh! This island was named for the many wild monkeys which roam around. You’ll find brave ones walking around the tourested restaurants and beaches, and more skittish ones along a hike. Try not to feed these monkeys, as domestication can lead to their extinction. You also want to keep loose items stored while playing in the water as monkeys are notorious thieves!
How to get to Monkey Island:
- Follow Google Maps to Ben Beo Boat Terminal. From there you can find a boat captain able to take you across. The ride takes around 15 minutes (or 5 if it’s a speedboat) and should cost around 600,000 dong.
- Your boat captain will arrange how long you want to spend on the island (3 hours is good) and will most likely hang out close to the island to stay available to pick you back up.
5. Rock Climbing at Cat Ba Island
Rock climbing enthusiasts won’t be surprised that there is great rock climbing on Cat Ba Island! A big part of the island is rocky coastline and limestone hills, which means climbers can access tons of routes right over the sand and water.
A few companies organize rock climbing at the bay or even deep water soloing for more advanced climbers. For around 1 mil dong you can go out with a guide and small group to these places for around 7 hours.
Its possible to access the climbing spots on your own, but not advised to go on a climb by yourself. If you would prefer to go alone you could ask local climbing places if they rent out gear. They may require a skills test before renting it to you, though!
Our recommended agency for climbing on Cat Ba is Mr. Zoom. He runs a hostel on one of the side streets of town and also takes groups out on various adventure tours. The day we booked a deep water soloing tour we were the only ones for the time slot, so we had a private tour with Mr. Zoom! He took extra time to show us the gorgeous Lan Ha Bay and let us climb the routes he’s groomed as much as we wanted. His routes are out of the way, and we only ever saw one junk boat cruise!
How to go rock climbing on Cat Ba Island:
- There are a few adventure tour companies in Cat Ba. Our favorite was Mr. Zoom, which you can find on Google Map
- You’ll have your choice of what type of climbing you want to do. Ask about the location and how many people are already signed up for the day you’re interested in to help narrow things down.
- Tours can cost around $30/ person, depending on the type you choose, and will include gear.
6. Visit Cannon Fort
Cannon Fort is the space where Northern Vietnamese stood watch against invaders entering the Lan Ha Bay during war time.
Cannon Fort is a military park, but not the way I was expecting. It’s not full of inactive, ugly military buildings like other forts. Instead, concrete bunkers were built under earth mounds and are now only visible when actively looking. One section of the fort shows concrete rooms built under the earth, but, overall, Cannon Fort just feels like a nature preserve.
What catches your attention most will be the incredible views of Lan Ha Bay. I wanted to stop for pictures every 3 minutes! The Cannon Fort is high enough that views of the iconic waterscape are truly incredible here.
Cannon Fort is small, and the one-direction path eventually ends at a small museum on it’s involvement in the American-Vietnam War and a snack booth. The snack booth is at the edge of the fort with incredible views of Lan Ha Bay. Take this opportunity to eat an ice cream cone and enjoy the view!
How to get to Cannon Fort:
- Follow Google maps to the side street out of town which leads up a winding hill. It’s very easy to find!
- You’ll be stopped at a gate to pay 40,000 dong ($1.75 USD) entrance fee
- Continue past the gate until you get to the small moto parking lot on your left. A rocky walking path starts beside the parking lot
7. Swim at Tung Thu Beach (Moon Beach)
This is the closest beach to town, but because it is a little harder to access its less crowded. You’ll mostly find locals swimming and playing here.
You won’t find a clear path to this beach on Google Maps because the mountain in front of it has only recently been blown away. Construction is still going on to build the road which passes in front of Moon Beach, but it’s already a nice, flat, wide road.
Follow signs for “Hair of the Dog Beach Club” which will lead you from the main town to the beach!
How to get to Moon Beach:
- Follow signs for Hair of the Dog Beach Club on the smaller side of the circular main town road.
- Take the road at the sign
- Just after the sign you’ll find the beach on your left. Leave a moto and walk up to the water!
There are even more things to do on Cat Ba Island that we chose not to list. You can visit Hospital Cave, hike through the National Park, swim at the more popular beaches, and eat or shop at the local market. All of these things and even more are easy to find by wandering the island on your moto or by researching Google Maps.
We did everything on this list (and more that we didn’t mention) with our 6-year-old. We felt safe taking him on the moto and he loved exploring the island! I can’t imagine having a better time on a family vacation!
Cat Ba Island is a truly magical place to visit and I hope you end up loving it as much as we did!
Planning a vacation to Cat Ba Island? Pin this guide on things to do for later!