THE Unesco World Heritage-recognized Halong Bay is undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions.
Dotted with jagged limestone pinnacles which form scenic rock formations, Halong Bay’s postcard-perfect karst islets are best enjoyed from aboard a cruise and there are plenty of tour companies ready to offer travelers a variety of cruise options.
These cruises offer a range of activities, from an exhilarating day excursion out on the bay filled with activities such as kayaking and cave-visiting to the more laidback overnight trips so you can take your time and watch the romantic sunset over the vista of islands.
And there is one island which is just begging to be explored.
Cat Ba Island (it means Women’s Island in Vietnamese) is a hidden gem located close to Halong Bay. The largest of the 367 islands which make up the Cat Ba archipelago, it boasts the dramatic and rugged features of Halong Bay.
Here, there is a wide variety of natural habitats such as limestone karsts, tropical limestone forests, stunning coral reefs, mangrove and seagrass beds, beautiful lagoons, white sand beaches, caves, and willow swamp forests.
Approximately half of Cat Ba Island is covered by a sprawling national park with largely untouched flora and fauna, home to the highly endangered Cat Ba langur, a mid-sized leaf-eating monkey. And that is not its only inhabitant.
With roughly 13,000 people living in six different communes and 4,000 more on floating fishing villages off the coast, Cat Ba Island is one of the only populated islands in Halong Bay. A large majority of its population reside in Cat Ba town, right at the southern tip of the island.
In the past decade or so, Cat Ba town has grown rapidly to become the commercial center on the island. Curious, nature-loving travelers will appreciate the fact that the hub has been deployed with free WiFi access points as well as 3.75 generation mobile networks.
For now, the island is still largely unexplored by tourists despite its close proximity to Halong Bay and it receives only about 350,000 tourists a year, but it is quickly becoming a common overnight hotel stop on tours around the bay.
Currently, over 150 hotels are listed in Cat Ba Island’s tourist directory pamphlet, from cheap budget hotels to flashier upscale resorts, and construction is underway for many more.
Getting there: From the capital city of Hanoi, jump on a bus to Haiphong where you can take a ferry to Cat Ba Island. Alternatively, opt for one of the many cruises which will take you to the island on a stopover.