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Cat Ba Island is the largest island in World Heritage listed Halong Bay and the only island that hosts a substantial settlement. Cat Ba’s spectacular National Park and its unique access to Halong Bay make it one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. But it still sees few visitors compared with the main gateways to the bay in Quang Ninh province.

The fishing community at Cat Ba town has been around for centuries. It’s still well worth exploring. In recent decades the tourism industry has started to transform the island. Cat Ba has become a summer favourite with domestic tourists and a year-round option for backpackers and travellers with an appetite for adventure and time to explore less visited parts.

Cat Ba is ramping up efforts to become a rival gateway to Halong Bay. It’s set to change dramatically. New roads now place it an easy 4 hour journey from Hanoi (see below), including a boat trip – and the island offers something more interesting than the overdeveloped Halong Bay city in Quang Ninh.

The declaration of Cat Ba Island’s national park in 1986, recognised the park’s unique natural beauty and ecological value. It marked the humble beginnings of a tourist industry that looks set to grow exponentially in the coming years. The National Park occupies just under half the island’s 260sq km land mass.

In the past, if you were taking a cruise of Halong Bay, it would  leave from Quang Ninh province to the at Bai Chay, Tuan Chau and Hon Gai. The vast majority still do.

Few travellers experience Halong Bay from Cat Ba and Haiphong, at the southern end of the bay – known as Lan Ha Bay.

Cat Ba is a good place for a less touristy (except during summer holidays) experience of the bay’s beautiful limestone islets. There are fewer boats operating from Cat Ba to Lan Ha Bay and they tend to target budget and adventure travellers.

Cat Ba is a beautiful place too – it’s easy to spend a couple of days on the island. It’s worth noting that the beaches and resorts are not the island’s strong points.

There are big plans in the pipeline for Cat Ba. And its delightful mellow ways might fall victim to the mass tourism virus that has harmed other destinations in Vietnam.

For now though, Cat Ba is a good fit for those with some extra time and an interest in exploring the island and its National Park. Rock climbing and other adventurous activities are offered. The island’s also good for cycling and motorcycle exploration.

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