Cat Ba Island is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam in my opinion, but it’s also a spot many travellers miss off their itinerary in this country… and what a shame.
#1 Because Cat Ba Island has a lovely national park at its heart – a great place to enjoy some nature time and day hiking
#2 Because it’s from Cat Ba Island that you can score the best deals for the perfect Halong Bay alternative!
As I’m sure you know, Halong Bay is the UNESCO-listed, insta-famous, jaw-dropping landscape everyone has on their Vietnam bucket list
But did you know that it costs hundreds of dollars to enjoy a boat trip here?
I know, crazy!
If, like me, this mad price tag has you baulking at the idea of Halong Bay, then don’t despair!
Read on to learn how you can experience this magnificent scenery for a fraction of the usual price care of a trip to neighbouring Cat Ba Island.
- 15 Things to Do in Vietnam You Can’t Miss
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- Your Complete Southeast Asia Packing List
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Why Visit Cat Ba Island?
I think I’ve spelt it out pretty clearly in the title and the intro of this article but, in case you need a recap, the main reason to visit Cat Ba Island is that it makes for the perfect (budget) alternative to Halong Bay.
If, like me, you’re horrified by the idea of paying hundreds of dollars for a crowded cruise in this part of Vietnam, then listen up, because you really need to start researching Cat Ba Island boat trips instead.
Located right next to Halong Bay – it’s the next province along – Cat Ba essentially looks exactly the same as the UNESCO-listed version but just isn’t as famous.
If you want to kayak this country’s most famous landscape without the crowds and half the trash, then you need to visit Cat Ba Island.
If you want to tick a Halong Bay landscape off your bucket list, but don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars, then you need to visit Cat Ba Island.
And if you’re getting a bit tired of the hectic cities of Vietnam and want to escape the pollution and noise of Hanoi, then you need to visit Cat Ba Island.
Because Cat Ba Island really is the spot to do all of those things and more, which certainly makes it one of the top places to visit in Vietnam!
Where is Cat Ba Island?
So let’s start with the obvious, where is Cat Ba Island?
Essentially on the coastline closest to Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam – Cat Ba Island lies in the northeast of this country, in a province called Hai Phong, where it sits within Lan Ha Bay.
Halong Bay is located in Quang Ninh province, which is just south of Hai Phong.
Why I’m explaining this is because, geographically, Lan Ha Bay which surrounds Cat Ba Island, is the same as Halong Bay – it’s just not called Halong Bay because of an arbitrary provincial border!
But let’s be clear, the landscape looks exactly the same… because it is!
The same dramatic limestone islands and aqua-turquoise waters. The same misty, ephemeral beauty. The same snap-tastic, dramatic, magical, spellbinding charm.
Lan Ha Bay just happens to have a different name!
And because of this, the price of trips to Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba Island are less than half, actually make that less than a quarter, of what they are to Halong Bay.
“What’s in a name?”, you might ask.
Turns out, quite a lot!
Because not only are trips to Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba a mere fraction of the cost, they also boast a mere fraction of the crowds and a mere fraction of the chaos compared to Halong Bay too!
An absolute win in my book!
How to Get to Cat Ba Island?
So, if this sounds like good news to you, then the first key bit of info you’ll need to know, is how to get to Cat Ba Island.
And the main thing to be aware of here is that the launch point for all transport to Cat Ba Island is Hanoi.
So first, get yourself to Hanoi, either via international or domestic flight, or via local bus, which is a more economical and better environmental option and no hardship, because the buses in Vietnam are excellent.
As always, I use Skyscanner to find the best flight deals and the excellent 12Go to book my buses in Southeast Asia, because you can directly compare services, journey times, prices and pay securely for your tickets all at once – simples!
So once you get to Hanoi (and I recommend Little Charm Hostel there if you need to spend the night FYI), I strongly suggest you use Cat Ba Express to get to Cat Ba Island.
There are 2 companies that run the bus / boat service from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay, but the Cat Ba Express is by far the better option.
With better buses and organisation (and no this isn’t sponsored!) I’d definitely recommend going with them and not their competitors.
A return journey from the Cat Ba Express office in Hanoi, via a bus, a boat and then another bus to Cat Ba island AND back cost me just $28 USD.
Learn more including Cat Ba Express’ departure times and how to reserve a place via their website here.
Otherwise, if you want to compare journeys from Hanoi, check out the great travel site Bookaway, who will handily give you tons of options and times to get to Cat Ba Island, so you can make the best choice.
Where to Stay on Cat Ba?
I highly recommend basing yourself in Cat Ba Town when you stay on this island, especially if you are a solo or budget traveller.
That’s because this town is where most amenities are, and where most other travellers stay, so you might feel a little isolated staying anywhere else.
Plus, Cat Ba Express will ferry you straight to Cat Ba Town when you reach the island and then drop you off at the door of your accommodation – so it was a no brainer in my opinion!
For budget travellers, Secret Garden Hostel is a great option here and I love their veggie café and family dinner vibes. However, you can’t book ahead and just have to turn up, so it can be a bit risky.
As such, you may want to stay at Luna’s House Hostel instead, which is just up the road and which you can book in advance – pretty essential during high season here.
Luna’s is where I stayed during my time on Cat Ba Island and the location, plus rooftop café, made it a good solid option.
Dorms are pretty cosy, but have privacy curtains and individual fans which are a blessing in the humidity let me tell you!
Things to Do on Cat Ba
So the main thing to do from Cat Ba Island, and why most travellers head there, is to cruise Lan Ha Bay… obviously!
But first I want to tell you about the other things there are to do on Cat Ba Island, including the great national park that lies at its centre.
I highly recommend spending at least 2 nights on the island if you can, 3 would be even better, because this will give you enough time to experience a day trip to Lan Ha Bay and a day in the national park here.
I recommend the following itinerary as a good starting point…
Day 1: Arrive on Cat Ba Island from Hanoi and prepare trips for the following days
Day 2: Hike in Cat Ba National Park
Day 3: Take a Lan Ha Bay day trip
Day 4: Return to Hanoi
When it comes to hiking in Cat Ba’s National Park, you can either enjoy a self-guided day trip or take an organised excursion.
The basic premise is the same, you take an early bus from Cat Ba Town to the western edge of the national park, walk across it, stop to enjoy the high lookout point in the middle, and then continue onto the coastal edge of it.
From here you can pick up a boat, which will take you back to Cat Ba Town and give you a mini glimpse into the sort of scenery you can enjoy the next day of your boat trip.
As always, I recommend you download the local maps.me resource onto your phone before setting off on any independent hikes.
How to Score a Budget Halong Bay Trip?
And now we come to the crux of it all, because there’s no question that the best thing to do in Cat Ba Island – the reason most people come here and the whole reason I wanted to write this article – is to experience the ideal Halong Bay alternative!
And I achieved it, here’s how…
Ok, ok, as we’ve discovered, the offshore landscape here isn’t technically Halong Bay, it’s Lan Ha Bay. But honestly, I challenge you to see a photo from both and to be able to tell the difference, aka you won’t be able!
So now it’s time to call upon the services of good old Cat Ba Express again, who have a handily-located office right along the waterfront road in Cat Ba Town. Here you can book your day trip to Lan Ha Bay.
Costing just $23 USD, yes you heard right, that’s just $23 USD, you can spend an entire day in this famous landscape for an absolute steal of a price.
Tours take place on local junk boats, which are a bit like large barges, and normally include a trip to see how locals live out here on their boats, as well as snorkelling opps, photo stops aplenty and, best of all, a chance to kayak in a part of the bay that forms a sort of lagoon and had not another tourist in sight.
That’s right, not another tourist. Put that in your pipe and smoke it Halong!
There’s also lunch and morning tea included in your Lan Ha day trip too.
Sound like a bargain? I think so friends!
And even more so, when I heard horror stories about the insane boat crowding, horrendous amounts of trash and generally awful experiences from everyone I spoke to who had sailed Halong Bay instead.
Annnnnd, let’s not forget, paid ridiculous amounts for!
In contrast, day trips to Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba Island are relaxed, affordable, accessible and short.
You get to see and snap those amazing limestone islands without the hordes of people, or the tragic trash levels, and you even get to kayak and snorkel in and around them too.
What a result!
If you want to know more about how I budgeted, and how much I spent on my trip to Vietnam, then check out this post I wrote that details all my costs and expenses over 2 weeks.
Things to Know About Your Trip…
It’s important to know that in this tropical country of Vietnam it can be cloudy and rainy at almost any time of the year.
I visited Cat Ba Island and Hanoi during April – technically one of the few months in which it is meant to be dry weather in both the north and south of Vietnam – but let me tell you, it was not dry in Cat Ba Island or Hanoi!
In fact, it rained heavily most days I was there and, from what I could tell, this actually seems to be pretty common! Dry season tch!
As such, you’ll def want to come prepared when you visit Cat Ba Island with a thin light rainjacket and some warm layers and long-legged pants.
Sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent would also be good things to pack, as would some swimwear, towel and a dry bag.
There are ATMs on Cat Ba island, but it’s probably not a bad idea to bring what you need money-wise with you from Hanoi too.
Book your transport to the island with Cat Ba Express at least one day in advance and reserve your accommodation and boat trips in advance too during the high season.
Finally, bring a big smile safe in the knowledge you will have saved yourself a fortune on visiting and seeing one of the world’s most iconic landscapes!
Mini Travel Guide to North Vietnam
When to Visit North Vietnam?
Vietnam is a pretty tricky country to get right climate-wise!
For a start, it has several of them!
And the north is an especially precarious one to nail!
The spring months of March and April are meant to be the best ones to visit north Vietnam but, as I mentioned in this article, when I visited at this time of year it rained every day, so y’know…
The other best time to visit this part of the country is during the autumn season between September and October, so that’s worth giving a go!
The months I’d avoid heading to the north of Vietnam in would be the mega-humid summer from May to August, and the cold wet winters from November through February – don’t think they’d be very fun at all!
Best Travel Insurance for North Vietnam
I’d never even consider travelling to Vietnam without proper coverage and always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads who I’ve used throughout my time in this country and beyond.
I love that they cover a wide range of adventure activities – which is definitely needed for a country like Vietnam – as well as their great customer service and the fact that you can easily claim or extend your coverage while you’re still abroad, online.
Alternatively, if you’re a remote worker or digital nomad seeking travel health insurance, look no further than Safetywing’s great Nomad Insurance policies.
These guys will cover you at some seriously great prices.
5 Packing Essentials for North Vietnam
#1 Lonely Planet Guidebook – The Vietnam Lonely Planet is excellent and very helpful for any trip to this country with lots of top tips and recommended places to eat.
#2 Walking Shoes – There’s likely to be a lot of walking in Vietnam, especially around those temples and cities. As such, I advise packing a pair of good runners, like these New Balance trainers, which were perfect for my time here.
#3 European & British Power Adapters – Vietnam has a mix of power outlets, but generally opts for a mix of the European and British ones, so make sure you come prepared with a Skross world adapter.
#4 Camera and Lens – I love my Sony A6000 mirrorless, which was ideal for capturing the colour, chaos and cuisine and charm of Vietnam.
#5 Travel Scarf – A great multi-purpose travel item that can be used to safely store valuables, as well as cover your shoulders while you explore many of Vietnam’s top sights, a travel scarf is a must for me!
How to Save When you Spend in North Vietnam
When it comes to paying for things in Vietnam, you want to ensure you’re not being charged overseas transaction fees or getting poor exchange rates when using your card abroad, which is why I always take my Wise Card away with me wherever I travel.
The easy way to spend abroad with real exchange rates, no markups and no sneaky transaction fees, you can use your Wise card just like a debit card in Vietnam… and it links easily with Google and Apple pay – sold!
Get yours here.
SAVE IT TO PINTEREST!
And there you have it, my full travel guide to Cat Ba Island – the spot to head to if you want to experience Halong Bay for a fraction of the price.
Is this great budget travel alternative now on your list?
Tell me all in the comments below…