The Murky Origins of Cat Ba Island

As humans, we can’t resist delving into a good origin story. Why is Spiderman so popular? It’s not because he can sling webs from his wrist with ease, but because we know he was once a normal guy just like us. We’re fascinated by knowing how things came to be, because it allows us to better understand them.

Similarly, when I heard the origin story of Cat Ba Island, I was hooked and knew we had to go. Tay and I knew we had to see Ha Long Bay during our time in Vietnam, but didn’t want to simply commit to a three-hour cruise and call it a day. So with our motorcycle full of fuel and swimsuits in our packs, we headed to the mysterious Cat Ba Island off the coast of Northern Vietnam to spend four days exploring the coastal paradise.

Legend has it, back when the Tran Dynasty ruled Vietnam (from 1225-1400), three women from the Tran family were murdered. Their bodies were dumped into the sea and washed ashore on three beaches of the island. After their corpses were discovered by fisherman, the island was named “Cat Ba,” meaning “Women’s Island.” Although this tale is a bit more gruesome than your classic superhero story, it provided an air of mystery to our trip and shrouded the island in possibilities. What else could be lurking on the lush land?

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We biked from Hanoi and took two ferries to get to the island. Once we arrived, we drove around for an hour with our mouths hanging wide open, gaping at the massive green mountains all around us and jokingly saying, “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”

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Cat Ba town on the far side of the island is where all the hotels are. The harbor is pretty stunning but the strip of cheap hotels is kind of an eyesore amidst all the natural beauty.

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In addition to the massive amounts of accommodations, there are tons of seafood restaurants slinging catches straight from the Pacific.

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We feasted on a fresh seafood hot pot one night that was out. of. this. world. I’m still thinking about it.

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Our shrimp were still alive and kicking when they got to the table. Sorry, crustaceans.

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We did devote an entire day to touring Ha Long Bay. Here’s a shot from the fishing village we saw as our boat took off.

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While the limestone cliffs were similar to those around Cat Ba, the sheer vastness of the rock formations was seriously mind blowing.

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The best part of the day was getting to explore the area via kayak. We saw some of the biggest, most colorful jellyfish I’ve ever seen out in the water.

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But we still swam in it anyway–oops. Luckily nobody on our boat got stung, but we did get to swim in water so warm that it made me wish San Diego’s beaches could magically adapt their temperature to match Vietnam’s.

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We spent lots of time lounging at the beach and strolling around the island, but we also explored Cat Ba’s national park.

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The day we went hiking it was over 100 degrees (plus super, SUPER humid) and we felt like we were going to melt into the jungle. So when we saw a huge manmade lake in the center of the park, we had no choice but to go stick our toes in for a while.

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A few local kids were camping and heating up dried fish over a makeshift fire. They kept giving us pieces, which was really sweet of them but not super tasty (I happily handed my piece off to Tay).

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The other crazy thing about the national park was how much wildlife we saw in just a few hours! We saw huge toads, snakes, and the biggest butterflies I’ve ever witnessed.

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There was also a beautiful herd of deer that looked more like they belonged in the North Pole than Northern Vietnam. But hey, I guess Rudolph likes to vacation just as much as the next guy.

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The lowlight of the day was visiting some macaque monkeys at the park’s “Temporary Rescue Place.” I understand conservation efforts vary around the world, but these little guys were locked in small cages that were FILLED with garbage and no water in sight. We watched as the monkeys chewed on old soda bottles and stomped across discarded chip bags. There weren’t any park attendants around to talk to about this either, whcih was disheartening.

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All in all, our time on Cat Ba Island was one of our favorite experiences in Vietnam so far. We didn’t see any mysterious maidens washed up on shore, but we did explore its beaches just the same.

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And we toasted to the three lost Tran women who put the island on the map. Hopefully wherever they are now, they got as much enjoyment out of this coconut and beer as we did.

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This article has 2 comments

  1. Tim McGrath Reply

    Yo Doggie each time sounds better and better, glad you’re having the time, why stop now . sending BIG LOVE from the Rockies

    Uncle T

    • justinejmcgrath@gmail.com Reply

      We keep thinking the same thing…Why stop now? Looks like we’ll be back in California in October instead of July…oops! Hope Colorado is treating you well. Love ya.

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