Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cát Bà Archipelago

Long ago, when a fish-monster was terrorizing people along the northeastern coast of Vietnam, Thiên Ngư, the Fish-God, descended from heaven on the back of a dragon, and engaged the monster in battle. The battle raged for months, during which time the god's dragon died of exhaustion and became an island. After killing the monster, Thiên Ngư threw his sword and club into the ocean; these too became islands. Later, a fairy woman descended from heaven on the back of an elephant the elephant also became an island. Thus were born several islands in the Cát Bà Archipelago.

Located 50 km from Hải Phòng and adjacent to Halong Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long), the Cát Bà Archipelago is comprised of nearly 400 islands, all made of the same dramatic limestone karst topography for which Halong Bay is famous. Viewing these gnarled islands in the early morning mist one imagines some truth in the legends of their creation. Spectacular rocky spires, trellised with vines, showcase the sculpting power of the ocean and do, in fact, call to mind the dragons, elephants, and other mythical creatures for which they are often named. It's also easy to see how, for centuries, these islands, with their caves, hidden grottoes, and twisted outcroppings, served as refuges for pirates and other seafaring rogues.

Aside from its spectacular beauty, the Cát Bà Archipelago is an ecological treasure. The larger islands, including the 140 km2 Cát Bà Island itself, are covered mainly by dense, tropical monsoon forest, but also contain mangroves, willow swamps, coral reefs, freshwater wetlands, and other habitats. They house a number of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth, including the golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) which, with only 60 in existence, is officially classified as the world's rarest primate (it looks oddly like the love child of Scatman Crothers and a Teletubby). Most of the archipelago – 4,200 hectares of ocean and nearly 10,000 hectares of forest – falls within the boundaries of Cát Bà National Park, and is protected from development.

The center of island tourism is Cát Bà Town, a community of roughly 10,000 people on the main island, with a strip of hotels and restaurants lining the edge of a small bay. Most of this development seems to have sprouted quickly; island residents tell me that ten years ago there were only a handful of places to stay. Indeed, the island has the feel of a boom-town, with scaffolding and work crews covering the façades of buildings in various stages of construction or repair. The only thing protecting Cát Bà from further expansion is the topography - the water's edge, of course, and the steep, densely foliated hills. Cát Bà looks about as full as it's going to get.

Like so much of Vietnam, Cát Bà's development only feels like a boom from the perspective of Vietnam's recent past. To an outsider, there remain visible elements of traditional village life. The harbor is filled with small, weather-beaten fishing boats that head out every evening after dark. Mid-morning, women sit dockside, cleaning the night's catch, and you see men mending nets, and performing other activities that affirm Cát Bà's historic standing as a fishing community. Outside of town are rice fields, lotus ponds, water buffaloes grazing between wooden fences, and signs of an island life as yet unaffected by tourism.

In the end, Thiên Ngư, the Fish-God, married the fairy woman who had descended from heaven on the back of an elephant. She brought with her a gourd of holy water, which restored Thiên Ngư's strength and fertilized the land. Rather than return to heaven, the couple decided to stay on earth, hunting and fishing for a living. Looking over the cathedral of rocks and water that make up the Cát Bà Archipelago, it is easy to see why.

Note: the story of Thiên Ngư and the monster comes from Hữu Ngọc. (2004). More Fascinating than Ha Long Bay. In Hữu Ngoc, Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture (4th ed.). Hanoi: Thế Giới Publishers.


  1. Great post Hal. It's sad that the new development seen in the pic looks the same everywhere. In travel photos from Fiji to Cancun new development always looks the same. There's the beautiful pristine landscape/ there's the cheesy "Magnum P.I." tourist hotels. Great entry though. I'm jealous.

  2. I know what you mean – I remember when Mexico's Playa del Carmen was a quiet beach town – but I didn't find Cat Ba particularly offensive.

    While the strip of hotels is admittedly unattractive, they've at least limited tourist development to that one strip. The village up the hill looks no better or worse than any other VN village of comparable size and, as you can see from the photos, the rest of the island is fairly pristine.

    Let's hope it remains so in ten years...

  3. Yeah, glad to hear that you were able to get up to that area! Isn't it just about the most beautiful place on earth? Sounds like you enjoyed your time there.

    Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you are able to have some sort of celebration with other Americans who may be there, whether you eat American food or Vietnamese food. :-)