Once a quiet and sleepy island in Halong Bay populated with fishing villages, Cat Ba Island is quickly becoming a major tourist attraction, maybe too quick. Although Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay, it may be too small to accommodate the rapid changes coming its way.

The island, covered with limestone cliffs and waterfalls, is nothing short of beautiful. Its sheer beauty and ruggedness may lead to its eventual hardships as adventure tourists clamor to enjoy sailing, bird watching, biking, hiking, and rock climbing. Steps have been taken to preserve the fauna and wildlife and half the island is now a national park. People can enjoy the island without destroying it.

Fishing has always been the major industry on the island. Crab farms are also numerous. The rocky landscape, although spectacular, is too rugged for agriculture. An occasional water buffalo can be seen working a miniature plot of land but nothing very large.  Small fishing villages dot the island, often around the few beeches tucked between the rocks, and many tarred-bottomed bamboo boats lie overturned on the sand when not in use.

Most streams, creeks and waterfalls on the island are temporarily filled during the rainy months but quickly drain during the dry months. The lack of year round water is one problem the island must overcome in order to support a large tourist population. There is simply too little of it at the present time.

Another problem is electricity. It was not until 1998 that the island installed any electricity. Although adequate at the time, at present not enough consistent power is available to supply Cat Ba Town and power outages are common, especially the early hours of evening. Tourists demand air-conditioning and the units use plenty of electricity. 

The island is a great place for exploring. The National Park, recognized by UNESCO in 2004, is home to over 30 different mammals and 1,000 varied species of plants. Wild boar, macaques, deer, civets, and squirrels roam freely throughout the thick vegetation. The golden-headed langur, world’s most endangered primate, makes its home here. Little more than 60 of them survive.

Over 160 plants are known to have medicinal value and more are being discovered each day.

The island sits on a major migration route for birds and mangrove swamps abound attracting over 70 species that feed in the lush forests. Lately, bird watchers seem almost as numerous as the waterfowl as they line the edges of clearings with cameras and binoculars.

Caves dot the hills, one of the largest ones being Hospital Cave. Inside, the cave was built as a hospital to house patients during the American war. Between 1963 and 1965 workers built seventeen rooms inside, including an operating room, a theater, and a swimming pool.

No less a dignitary than Ho Chi Minh also visited Cat Ba Island in 1951. In his honor, workers built a monument on a hillside overlooking Cat Ba Town. An annual event is still held I the town.

Cat Ba Town is small but interesting with small streets branching of the main street beside the bay. A lovely promenade, with decorated bricks and art, crowds the bay where colorful fishing boats float quietly catching the morning light. Several boats operate as restaurants and some offer sleeping quarters. Many restaurants on shore, squeezed between tall and short hotels that overlook the water, feature fresh seafood. Everyday living occurs just a street up from the hotels.

The market is tucked away at one end of town opposite the hotels. A relaxing haircut can be had here at local prices, as well as food and everyday living products. Electrical devices hang from poles, motorbike helmets, music CD’s, and clothes abound.

People on the island are slowly making a transition from fishing to tourism and tourist shops seem everywhere. With careful planning the island can become a showpiece of Vietnam’s many unique islands but they must be careful not to grow too fast without proper planning and deciding if what they giving up is more valuable than what they are gaining. 

 

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