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Nestled on the periphery of Vietnam's fabulous Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island is big -- over 350 square kilometres, but most tourists see but a sliver of it.
Put ashore during their various Ha Long Bay excursions, tourists spend most of their time in a small area on and around Cat Ba Harbour -- that's where just about all the accommodation is, and across the harbour road, there's a long promenade skirting the water -- in the evenings it becomes a make-shift beer garden, with dozens of places vying for customers to sit at plastic tables and tip a glass or two of bia hoi.
The bay provides a pleasant view, dotted with fishing boats and floating restaurants, and hosting it's share of smouldering sunsets on the western horizon. In addition to hotels and restaurants, the harbour road also features a handful of 'massage parlours' in front of which, would-be 'masseuses' hang out in the evenings, aggressively soliciting male customers as they pass by. A local has informed us that one of these places actually offers real massages. But we won't tell you which one.
An overnight on Cat Ba is de rigueur for many of the 3-day tours of Ha Long Bay, assuring a steady trickle of tourists, even in the off season. In the summer, it's a premier spot for Hanoians to take a quick summer vacation -- most people only get about three days off from work each year.
Even for the independent traveller, a trip to Cat Ba makes sense -- there are three beaches nearby -- hardly world class, but they'll do for a quick swim and some baking on the sand -- and there's a national park here -- again, nothing sensational, but a good place for a close-to-nature trek among the mangroves and fresh-water lakes.
Cat Ba is also a good launching point for kayaking trips to explore some of the nearby tunnel caves, and there's Hospital Cave on the main island which played it's part in the war with America, and is worth a peak, especially for war buffs.
Probably the best way to see the island is by motorbike -- there's a 100 km circuit running along the bay and into the interior, through incredibly beautiful country-side, and small villages where life in Cat Ba has gone on, largely untainted by the decade-long boom in tourism.
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