Our first trip out of Vietnam since January was Taiwan. Neighbouring China, Japan and the Philippines, the island isn’t the most obvious south east Asia backpacker choice or route, but for us the appeal was experiencing a different side of Asia we hadn’t seen before, something a little more modern but also a place we knew very little about. We couldn’t wait to get stuck in!
Taipei is known as the cultural, political and economic centre of Taiwan and is one of the major hubs of the Chinese-speaking world. We stayed in the Zhongzheng District of the city in Angel’s Hostel, imbedded within a shopping centre. We tend to avoid staying in dorms at all costs while travelling (occasionally opting to share a bathroom if it brings the cost down significantly) but Taipei accommodation was way over our budget if we chose to stay in a private room. We were surprised to have our own private cubby whole in the Angel’s Hostel dorm with a cosy double bed and curtains separating us from the rest of the room. Everyone was very respectful and generally quiet in the dorm so it was all a pleasant surprise. It didn’t feel like the classic ‘lets go crazy and stay out late getting drunk’ hostel vibe we worried about. Most of the people staying at Angel’s Hostel were Asian tourists of varying ages, and only one or two other Westerners. In fact, the whole city was quite empty of white faces and didn’t feel touristy in the slightest.
We had arrived in the capital, Taipei City, feeling extremely sleep deprived at 6:20am after only a couple of hours sleep on the plane. We couldn’t actually check in to the hostel until 3pm that day so it was a case of dumping our bags and ploughing on with the day, trying not to stop for too long or lose momentum. We did pretty well considering how much walking around in the heat was involved (although Taipei is no where near as humid as Vietnam). But it was a good chance to amble along and take in the vibe of this new city. We strolled to Fong Da, one of Taipei’s original coffee shops dating back to 1956, for some much needed caffeine. The café still uses some of its original equipment and we had their classic drip filter coffee with just a squirt of fresh cream on top. It was pretty tasty but had nothing on our Vietnamese favourites!
After this, it was onwards and upwards to Bopilao Historic Block. Although not our destination, we stumbled upon the area out of blind luck. The block is a collection of ancient streets that have been preserved, with some of the architecture dating back a few hundred years. Our next stop was Longshan Temple. This Buddhist Temple sits in the Wanhua District of Taipei. It is comprised of many halls and altars and was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, as a place to worship. Within the temple worshipers were using Jiaobei blocks, also known as moon blocks. We had no idea what these people were doing with them as they chucked them two at a time on the floor in front of them. They are in fact wooden divination tools that originate in China and are used in pairs to answer yes and no questions. They are made from wood and carved into a crescent or moon shape (the round side being yin and the flat side, yang). Depending how the blocks land, these questions are answered by the gods. Round the corner from the temple was Herb Alley, an area that dates back to Qing times selling a range of Chinese herbs and made for an interesting stroll.
At this point Naomi in particular was feeling the lack of sleep so we walked zombie-esque through the streets to find some lunch in the heat of the mid afternoon sun. We ate delicious baked black pepper buns at a local street vendor near our hostel. These buns are made all over Taiwan and are popular among locals as well as tourists. The dough for the bun is stuffed with a filling and baked via sticking the buns to the sides of large canisters to golden and crisp up. The bun is filled with a pork and black pepper mixture in addition to spices including spring onion. The meat is tender on the inside (and piping hot!) and the outside bread shell is crispy yet chewy. After filling our bellies it was finally time to check into our room.
The rainy season is upon Taiwan so we had some showers on the first night, dropping the temperature to a pleasant 25 degrees. But the rain didn’t stop us from catching the MRT to Raohe Street Market after a power nap.
It’s really easy to get around the city using their public transport system. The MRT (mass rapid transit) consists of 108 stations and five main routes that can take you all over the city in a matter of minutes. We bought an EasyRide card and each journey only costs us around 50p so it’s a great way to see a lot in a short space of time. It began operating in 1996 and has greatly improved Taipei’s congestion problems. There is much less traffic in Taipei than in Vietnam and we actually stroll the pavement without fear of being knocked down or having to maneuver around parked mopeds. There are still motorbikes but they’re not driven as commonly and look a little more dated than the stylish Vespas we saw in Saigon.
Back to the night market feast! There are many street food and night markets in Taipei, but Raohe stood out as the most popular and one of the oldest. In Taiwan, night markets are well embedded in the lives of Taiwanese people. A variety of local food and wide array of fashion stalls lined the 600-meter street. We tried a mixture of food with the aim of eating anything and everything that took our fancy. We grazed on lots of local delicacies, careful not to stuff ourselves on one dish. We feasted on BBQ grilled squid, which was chewy and caramalised, as well as octopus balls smothered in a melted cheese topping, grilled pork dumplings, and for dessert, a shaved mango ice mountain. The octopus and dumplings were the stand out favourites but it was all amazing and worth getting a little damp for. Ciyou Temple, a beautiful folk temple, stands to the east end of Raohe night market, so we popped our heads in for a peek, but as the rain got heavier we called it a day and went home for an early night.
Everything in Taipei feels a little more organised than we’re used to, with zebra crossings and green men strictly marking each road (it’s illegal to jaywalk). However it’s funny how we’re more cautious about crossing roads here than in Vietnam where we would waltz out into oncoming traffic with a very blasé attitude, in the knowledge that bikes will swerve around us. The control over when you can cross roads here and the fact cars aren’t expecting pedestrians on the roads means that they drive faster. On the other hand, Taipei isn’t quite as squeaky clean as Singapore say, and it’s less modern with fewer skyscrapers dominating the skyline. Taipei has much more of a fusion of higgledy-piggledy alleyways and derelict buildings mixed in with the new.
On our second day in Taipei we headed to Fu Hang Soy Milk for a traditional Taiwanese breakfast. We had to wait in line for a good 20 minutes before entering the food court even though it was 10am on a weekday. Our expectations were pretty high by this point but we got to admire the process as we waited patiently. The freshly made you tiao (fried doughnuts) and shao bing (sesame flat bread) are baked in front of the queue visible through a glass window. We opted for the sweet soymilk bowl (cold) with fried doughnuts and the sesame flatbread. The doughnut was deliciously greasy and tasted great crumbled into the sweet soymilk bowl. The whole feast only set us back £2 and was plenty to keep us going for a big day of sightseeing.
After breakfast we waddled to the National Taiwan Museum, the oldest museum in Taiwan. The elegant architecture and impressive gem stone collection were the highlights. Our ticket also allowed us entry into the Land Bank of Taiwan, just across the road. The building was previously used as a bank specialising in handling real estate but now incorporates a natural history section within the museum.
The National Taiwan museum is situated within the grounds of the 228 Peace Memorial Park, in recognition of one of the most pivotal events in Taiwanese modern history: the mass killings known as the 228 incident. This involved an uprising in which many Taiwanese protested against the post WWII Chinese government. Consequently, tens of thousands of Taiwanese people were killed in the following months. We wandered around the tranquil grounds of the park, walking under the memorials, ponds and pavilions.
We made our way to Huashan 1914 Creative Park via the trusty MRT (we were getting the hang of it by now), a trendy place offered to artists to develop their creations and a venue for non-profit organisations to hold activities. There were a host of coffee shops, craft stalls and other quirky workshops that drew us in. The park and its warehouses were originally used as a winery but today, writers, sculptors, painters, theatre groups and many more get to enjoy this creative space.
After all of this walking it was time to grab a coffee at Fika Fika Café. In a country where tea is a national treasure, coffee is unexpectedly taking over Taipei. There are cafes in dizzying numbers all over the city and making it difficult to choose which one, but luckily it’s hard to go wrong. Fika Fika is a Nordic style café with an interior straight out of the IKEA catalogue. It offers delicious coffee with beans representing Taiwan in the ‘Nordic Roaster Competition in 2013’. It took home first prize! The city is home to a diverse coffee scene with no signs of slowing down. While tea is rooted in tradition, Taipei has been free to expand and be inspired by all countries near and far, that have clearly left their impression on the city.
After strolling back to the hostel for a quick recharge of batteries and to research our upcoming day trips outside of Taipei City, it was time to see Dalongdong Bao’an Temple, a Taiwanese folk religion temple that was high on the Top 10 list. The beautiful wooden structure is situated within a peaceful courtyard, embellished with ornate ceramic roofing and painted murals. It became even more atmospheric as the sun began to set and the Chinese lanterns swayed and glowed a golden yellow.
We were so impressed by Raohe night market that we had to try one of the many other highly reviewed street food spots. We were already loving Taiwanese cuisine and Shilin market was noted as one of the biggest and most popular with tourists, so we took the MRT northbound. As it was the most well known market in the city, it drew a very large crowd of tourists, which ruined the atmosphere a little for us. Shilin comprises of a maze of lanes lined with food and clothes stalls. Fun fair and amusement park style games dominate while loud music pumps into the crowds of tourists. In spite of this, the food was still delicious and we tried some new dishes as well as returning to our newfound favourites. We dined on suckling pig wraps, pork steamed buns, fried dumplings (we’re in love with them) and an ice cream and coriander wrap for dessert. Shilin certainly isn’t as quaint as Raohe and feels a little gimmicky, but well worth a visit for a livelier party vibe if that’s what you’re in to. For us, Raohe wins hands down for food and charm.
After only two days exploring Taipei we’re already in love with the city and feel like we’ve packed in as much as we could, although it seems there’s so much more to see in this diverse and vibrant city. It’s quickly becoming a place we feel we could have easily taught and lived in if Vietnam hadn’t been such a front-runner…although we would definitely have gained a few pounds eating our body weight in fried dumplings.