Cat Ba Emerald Beach

Introducing Cat Ba Island

24Jul

Almost half of Cat Ba Island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves.

Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. The island’s largest body of water is Ech Lake (3 hectares).

Cat Ba is home to some nice patches of beach. The most accessible are near the town and known imaginatively as Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3. Especially Cat Ba emerald beach, the most natural one in Cat Ba, it is pleasant spots to cool off on a hot day and really wonderful beaches – you are not be controlled and managed by any one and you have free kayaking on the private beach. Some of the best beaches on the island are accessible only by boat and are often visited on cruises from Cat Ba. Keep in mind too that you’re not likely to be swimming from November to February on account of the cold misty weather.

Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Hai Phong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba Town, a fishing village now redefining itself as a tourist centre. The rest of the island is largely unspoilt and mostly inaccessible, with just a handful of paved roads across a landscape of enclosed valleys and shaggily forested limestone peaks, occasionally descending to lush coastal plains

In 1986 almost half the island and its adjacent waters were declared a national park in an effort to protect its diverse ecosystems, which range from offshore coral reefs and coastal mangrove swamps to tropical evergreen forest. Its value was further recognized in 2004, when the Cat Ba Archipelago was approved as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. However, change is coming – at the time of writing, a huge resort was under construction outside Cat Ba Town, and may be the first of many.

About three hours from Hanoi, a trip requiring bus, a boat and a minivan, Cat Ba turned out to be the best way to see the bay. Or not quite: it sits on Lan Ha Bay, the southern part of Halong, and is a ruggedly beautiful island in its own right.

Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, has experienced a tourism surge in recent years. The central hub of Cat Ba Town is now framed by a chain of low-rise concrete hotels along its once-lovely bay, but the rest of the island is largely untouched and as wild as ever. With idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s overdevelopment.

Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the region and almost half of Cat Ba is home to a natural park. Access to the Cat Ba Island is fairly easy as there are many river boats connecting to Ha-Long Bay and Haiphong which are close by. The natural Park at Cat Ba is probably the main highlight with stunning scenery and hiking through the green terrain and most of the hotels in Cat Ba Island will be able to provide information on the best treks.

Cat Ba is a pretty laid-back place most of the year and for climbers, kayakers and hikers it’s the launching pad for swag of sweat-inducing activities. Between June and early August (and particularly on summer weekends) the energy level gets dialed up significantly as Cat Ba Town transforms into a roaring resort, filled with vacationing Vietnamese. This is peak season and hotel prices during this period can rocket.

Almost half of Cat Ba Island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves.

The main town has the dilapidated feel of a ’70s pastel beach resort gone to seed, but is still entirely appealing; a string of strangely narrow, disco-look high-rise hotels with mirrored walls of windows jut up in front of Cat Ba’s main peak, overlooking a wide promenade and a beautiful bay filled with bobbing fishing boats.

The aptly named Cat Ba Town is the main settlement on the island with around 8,000 inhabitants or on boats moored in Cai Beo bay, about 2km away from the town itself. It features 3 beaches and a parade of restaurants and hotels along the seafront and reminded me a little of small coastal towns back home in the UK. It also features some nightclubs and bars – one that we went to called the Flightless Bird Bar. Unfortunately, we arrived in the town quite late and so didn’t have any time to really explore it.

A cliff side path winds its way out of the small town along the coast, past karst island outcrops. The pathway leads to three small coves with clean white sand and clear water for swimming.

It is very inviting, despite the morbid legend: Cat Ba means Women’s Island, allegedly named for three Tran Dynasty women whose bodies washed up one by one on the three beaches.

You can luxuriate on the sand, but the best way to see the beautiful bay is from the water, and so bright and early the next morning, I join a day trip to sail out into the bay before hopping into twin kayaks.

A gentle rain is falling, lending the bay a misty, otherworldly air out of which loom floating fishing villages. Dogs teeter at the edges of pontoons to bark as we pass, their owners untangling nets and presiding over breakfast fires.

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