The largest island in a scenic sprawling archi- pelago of more than 350 islets and islands, Cat Ba is one of Northern Vietnam’s most delightful destinations. The island’s main appeal has always been its relative isolation and bucolic charm. Waterfalls, freshwater lakes, hills, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs are just some of the features of Cat Ba’s ama zingly diverse ecosystems. Although these characteristics are evident in the island’s forests, idyllic beaches, and sparse sprinkling of tiny villa ges, Cat Ba Town is now becoming increas ingly pol luted and crow- ded. Never theless most boats dock here as it is the only settle- ment in the area where it is possible to stay over night and eat in some comfort. With its shabby little karaoke bars, a few small restaurants serving fresh sea food, some seedy massage parlors, and a couple of noisy disco theques, there is little to recommend it except as a gate- way to the beautiful Cat Ba National Park, the main attraction of the island.
In 1986, to help safeguard the island’s varied habitats, almost half of Cat Ba was given the status of a national park. Famous for its rugged landscape, with craggy limestone outcrops, lakes, caves, grottoes, and thick mangroves, the park offers visitors much to explore and experience. The astonishing range of flora found here is also impressive, with more than 800 species cataloged to date. The forests also sustain a variety of fauna, including wild boars, deer, macaques, as well as a large number of bird and reptile species. The park is especially renowned for its community of endangered Cat Ba langurs, found only here on Cat Ba Island. Today, their number is estimated at a dismal count of 50 animals.
Apart from sightseeing, the park also offers activities such as trekking (see p265) and camp ing for the adven turous. However, facilities are very limited, and currently visitors need to bring along their own equipment and supplies. The short est and most popular trek climbs to the 656-ft (200-m) summit of Ngu Lam peak, from where there are panoramic views. A longer hike, which can take between four to six hours, leads through the park’s tree-canopied interior, past the vast Frog or Ech Lake, to the small hamlet of Viet Hai. From here, boats can be char- tered back to Cat Ba Town.
Boats may also be chartered from Cat Ba to explore the Halong Bay (see pp186–8), a short distance to its north, or the smaller but pic turesque Lan Ha Bay, which is located to its northeast, and has tiny but exclusive beaches that can be enjoyed for a small fee.