I’m convinced that Cat Ba Island, off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, is the most beautiful place in the world. It has stunning views of Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay and its limestone karsts, richly diverse natural ecosystems, and friendly, welcoming people. It was a much-needed break from the traffic and pollution of Hanoi — even more so after the four buses and a boat it took to get to the island.
The market is a short walk from the center of Cat Ba Town, and its winding aisles were packed with vendors selling the morning’s fresh catch as well as dried seafood, produce, fresh meat, and just about any type of kitchen tool you might want.
Like most islands, Cat Ba is devoted to fishing. Shrimp and pearl boats line the shore along Cat Ba Town, and floating fishing villages are hidden among the karst formations of nearby bays. Anchovies are made into Cat Hai brand fish sauce in the island’s factory. Octopus, shrimp, clams, and many types of fish are served up at restaurants on and off the island and sold at the impressive local market.
Seafood isn’t Cat Ba’s only industry: since the island’s infrastructure was improved in 2001, tourists have flocked to the island’s cheap hotels (ours was $15/night), all-day cruise and kayak tours, rock climbing, and sandy beaches. Some 350,000 tourists visit Cat Ba every year, and more are coming: a massive new resort, hotel and casino complex that will change the southern coast of the island is now under construction.
There may be a balance between the traditional fishing culture, increasing tourism, and the natural ecosystem, but that balance is fragile. Overnight cruises that leave from Hanoi and stop for a night on Cat Ba are polluting the bay. This pollution, combined with trash from the floating fishing villages, has killed sea life in recent years. Protecting the natural wonders of Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay while also protecting a traditional way of life and welcoming progress will be a tough thing to do.
Cat Ba will be changing in the future. For now, though, the island remains a beautiful spot with wonderful people, incredible scenery — and enormous amounts of seafood.