Cat Ba National Park is one of the most jaw-dropping parts of Vietnam. Spread over rugged Cat Ba Island on the south side of world-famous Ha Long Bay, it’s now one of the must-see spots in this corner of Southeast Asia.
Visitors come to scale the soaring lookout points that offer sweeping vistas of the jungles and the turquoise-tined South China Sea. They come to hike misty mountain peaks, to seek out the rare langurs, delve into dank cave systems and sail through wild bays beneath the karsts. It’s pretty awesome stuff.
This guide runs through all the things you need to know about exploring the enticing Cat Ba National Park. It’s got info on the best places to visit, the top Cat Ba National Park tour options, the best viewpoint spots, the most intrepid hikes – you name it. Ready? Let’s go…
Where is Cat Ba National Park?
The Cat Ba National Park can be found in the far north of Vietnam, situated on the small island of Cat Ba. Cat Ba National Park is one of the most popular attractions on the island, although it doesn’t cover the whole land mass. The famous karst landscapes of Ha Long Bay are to the northeast of Cat Ba. Lan Ha Bay – equally as dramatic – is directly to the east. The nearest city is Haiphong, which hides amid the coast jungles around 40km directly west. Hanoi – the capital – is about a two-hour drive (135km) to the west.
How to get to Cat Ba National Park
The park entrance is at Trung Trang, which is smack dab in the middle of the reserve. To get there, we rented a motorbike for 100,000 VND (£3) and drove across the island. We won’t lie – it was a pretty stunning drive! It took approximately 20 minutes from the town of Cat Ba itself. The route follows the winding road that weaves into the forests from the coast. You’ll need to watch out for the sharp turns and not get distracted by the views!
Alternatively, you can catch a public bus from the docks in Cat Ba Town for an affordable ticket price of 25,000 VND. At the last time of checking, buses departed at 7am, 11am, and 3pm every day. There’s also a regular ferry from the island of Tuan Chau. That’s the best way to arrive if you’re already in the city of Ha Long. They take about an hour, cost 80,000 VND, and whisk you through the heart of legendary Ha Long Bay.
Opening times and admission for the Cat Ba National Park
The park opens between 8am and 5pm every day. Admission prices are 80,000 VND per person, with 5,000 VND for parking on top. However, you can park for “free” across the road at one of the nearby vendors. They do expect you to buy something, though, and can be known to be quite pushy.
Getting around Cat Ba Island and the national park
The park itself is well signposted, so it should be easy to find your way. There are two main trails, one leading up to the viewpoint and another that takes you to the fishing village (more on those later). Some people simply choose to cruise through on a rental bike and stop at the few POIs that dot the main roadway. That’s okay if you’re tight on time, but means you won’t get to see the best parts of this wild corner of Vietnam.
Where to stay for visiting Cat Ba Island
- BUDGET: Catba Buffalo Hostel – Located on the winding roads that go into the heart of Cat Ba Island, this one’s a well-rated hostel where you should find it easy to meet and mingle with other backpackers. There’s also an outdoor pool to chillax in after days of trekking.
- MIDRANGE: Village Peace House – Immerse yourself in a rustic Vietnamese village with a stay at the Village Peace House. It’s a classic homestay that promises to be an experience to remember, not least of all because you can fling open your bedroom window for views of the jagged karst mountains overhead.
- LUXURY: Flamingo Cat Ba Beach Resort – Clocking up the full five stars, this deluxe establishment offers real R&R when you’re done on the hiking trails of Cat Ba. Big, sweeping suites offer views of the south side of the isle, while bathrooms come with free-standing tubs and walk-in showers.
Hiking trails in the Cat Ba National Park
There are a few outstanding Cat Ba National Park hike paths that simply can’t be ignored. They vary in length but are the perfect adventure for any intrepid traveler really looking to explore this wilderness, and even spot some rare creatures. We’d say the best of them go high. In Vietnam that means steps and more steps, but also views that are to die for!
Ngu Lam peak hike
The path to Ngu Lam peak is your ticket to the much-photographed Cat Ba National Park viewpoint. A favourite of Instagrammers, you do have to work a little to get there. It’s no Mount Everest, though – expect around 4km roundtrip.
At the beginning, dense jungle helps to protect from the heat and rays of the sun. We were quite thankful for that, as we were already working up a slight sweat in the humid forest. However, the path quickly bends upwards and scales rugged sections of rock, so you will have your work cut out.
After around 45 minutes to an hour, the first Cat Ba National Park viewpoint comes into view. It’s a giant wooden tower which you can climb. Usually, you will find other visitors already in the tower, unless you’re really early on in the day!
The second viewpoint (and in our opinion, the better viewpoint), is just a short walk from the wooden tower. To reach it, look for the narrow path that heads into the bushes. After a five-minute uphill scramble, it will open up with panoramic views across the heart of the island. It’s the real money shot there, with lush hills of 10,000 shades of green rolling out on all sides. In fact, we’d say it’s arguably the best view on the whole of Cat Ba Island.
The Viet Hai Fishing Hike
The second Cat Ba Island National Park hike to know about is far more challenging. Known as the Viet Hai Fishing Village trail, it’s a 15km hike over a high-mountainous and deep jungle terrain. If you’re up for it, we’ve heard it’s 100% worth the effort. Just be prepared for a long and arduous journey, and pack accordingly (AKA: Bring plenty of water!)
Viet Hai Fishing Village is a small village situated in the heart of Cat Ba National Park. The residents who live in this village are the original inhabitants of Ha Long Bay. Their ancestors can trace their time on the back to many hundreds of years ago. Today, the locals make a living by farming, fishing and breeding, but have also recently embraced the world of ethical tourism.
The route in goes right through the feral center of the reserve. It dodges pockets of ancient jungle, with hulking great trees sprouting overhead strewn with vines. Highlights along the way include a big cave close to the village itself and the chance to see native wildlife. Sightings of rare creatures like the uber-rare golden-headed langur or the more common white-headed langur, which are both endemic to the park.
You’re looking at about 3-4.5 hours of trekking time before you even reach Viet Hai village. There are a few amazing experiences on offer there, from craft workshops to smaller treks in the surrounding area. There are some homestays, but most folk will either loop back on the same path or head for the nearby harbour to finish thier day with a boat transfer.
Wildlife in the Cat Ba National Park
Cat Ba National Park has some seriously elusive wildlife. Over 30 species of mammal are present, along with the only group of golden-headed langurs left on the planet! We weren’t lucky enough to spot one of those, but then few are. There’s estimated to be just 60-70 left in the wild. What’s more, they only live deep in the rainforest, in moist and humid canopies.
On top of those elegant primates, the park is home to all sorts of amazing fauna. Some of the most common seen by visitors include the wild civet and wild deer. There are also some pretty cheeky macaques (keep a close watch on your belongings if they’re around) and all manner of marine life in the mangroves and patches of coral reef closer to the coast. You might also spot a few of Vietnam’s snakes in the trees. They’re both in the trees and pickled in the whisky bottles sold down in Cat Ba Town marketplace!
Things to do in and around the Cat Ba National Park
Besides the national park, the island of Cat Ba offers many other exciting and fun adventures. The most popular activities include Trung Trang cave, Cat Ba hospital cave, Butterfly Valley, and Cannon Fort.
Trung Trang Cave
Prepare to be stunned by the sheer size of the Trung Trang Cave. This colossal rock cavern near the center of the national park is among the most dramatic in the reserve – and there’s over 150 in total, so that’s saying something. Visitors can delve more than 300 metres into the wonder, to see colossal stalactites and shadow chambers carved deep into the rock.
Cat Ba Hospital Cave
The second of the eye-catching caves in the middle of Cat Ba National Park is the Cat Ba Hospital Cave. It’s named so because it was once a hidden treatment facility for wounded Viet Cong soldiers during the American War. Today, visitors can explore 17 individual rooms, including a complete operating theater! It’s pretty fascinating stuff, for both geologists and historians.
About half an hour’s hiking into the hills above Cat Ba Town is what’s needed to get to the heights of soaring Cannon Fort. These days, the citadel is mostly known for its unforgettable views – they take in the jungles towards the middle of the island and the needle-like karst islands of Lan Ha Bay to the east. However, the spot is also steeped in history, and includes a museum that chronicles its time since it was founded as a Japanese outpost in WWII.
Calling all rock climbers – Butterfly Valley has more climbing routes than you can shake a Vietnam guidebook at. A hidden cleft in the karsts and jungles in the middle of the isle, this place is remote and wild. It’s got high cliffs that are perfect for those who come with the harness in tow. What’s more, there are dashes of grass meadow and wildflowers that are known to attract fluttering butterflies.
Monkey Beach is one of the most-visited specks on the map of Lan Ha Bay. Fragmenting just off the eastern side of Cat Ba Island, it’s dominated by a big hotel resort. But that’s not why you’ll want to visit. Most come for the crystal-clear waters and hidden swimming lagoons, all of which are patrolled by cheeky bands of crab-eating macaques. Trips here are most often done as part of a da-long Cat Ba National Park tour.
Cat Ba National Park tour options
If you’re thinking of booking onto a Cat Ba National Park tour, read on. This section takes a look at some of the best day and multi-day outings that you can get in this corner of Ha Long Bay…
Cruise tours around Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay ($90-300)
If you want to discover more during your stay, we would highly recommend one of the cruise ship tours. There is no shortage of tour operators on the island, and you won’t need to look far to book your trip. Both single and multi-day excursions are available, but we found that just a single day is more than adequate to see the main attractions. During those, you will sail to lovely Monkey Beach and a few other neighbouring islands.
Cat Ba Island is also often a part of multi-day tours through Ha Long Bay. They’re some of the most sought-after tour packages in Vietnam. These days, you can choose all sorts, from backpacker-centric party cruises to uber-luxurious five-star cruises on traditional Indochinese junk boats.
Hiking tours in Cat Ba ($25-40)
Hiking guides on Cat Ba island aren’t necessary but they can cut a whole load of stress out of the equation. There are plenty based in Trung Trang itself, and others in Haiphong. They can help you plan multi-day walks across the whole breadth of the island to the rustic Viet Hai Fishing Village. Or, they can signpost the way to the lookout points of Ngu Lam peak.
We generally prefer going local on these ones. The people who live and work around the Cat Ba National Park make much of their living from guiding trekkers. We also think they offer unique perspectives on the local fauna and flora, along with a glimpse at the history and culture of the island while you walk.