When we found VietJet selling flights from Saigon to Taiwan for $120 return, it was a no brainer for our next adventure. Taiwan has been on our “must visit” list for a while now and we were thrilled to get an opportunity to travel here. Known for its legendary night markets, street food, and boba pearl milk tea, we couldn’t wait to partake in a week-long glutton fest. After a bit of research, we learned that there is more than just food and drink in Taipei, so we added the lovely Taroko Gorge and historical city of Tainan to our itinerary. Our 10 days in Taiwan flew by and we were shocked to realize how affordable this country is! We averaged $60 a day on hotels, transpo, food, drink and entrance fees…bargain. Our first trip certainly won’t be our last as we would LOVE to visit more of “Ilha Formosa” (“beautiful island” as dubbed by the Portuguese sailors who first spotted it in 1542). Taiwan lived up to its high expectations and we can’t wait to spend more time here in the future!
11 Nov- We flew to Taipei’s Taoyuan international airport and took the Kuokuang shuttle bus into the city (NT$125 o/w). Once we got into the city, we quickly realized that we didn’t need to go all the way to the main station in Taipei as we were driving right past our hostel so we got off at an earlier stop and walked the rest of the way to the Lucky One Memory Hostel (cheapest accommodation on booking.com at about USD $26 a night for 2). After checking into our quad couples room, we dropped off our stuff and immediately hit the streets in search of some street food. Success at the Dalong Night Market where the TFC (Taiwanese Fried Chicken) was to die for…yum! Back at the hostel, our room became full quickly with all 4 double beds occupied before midnight. It was a Friday night and the hostel was loud which didn’t make for a comfortable night’s sleep. We later discovered that one of the couples had switched the AC off, which made for a super stifling night! Sometimes we feel that we are too old to be hosteling anymore and tonight was one of those nights!
12 Nov – It was a long restless night without AC, the window wide open, and loud drunk people in the hallway slamming doors, talking and using hair dryers. The couple that went to sleep early also woke up super early and started packing, which woke up everyone else in our room. Since we were fully awake at 7 am, we decided to get an early start to our day. After packing our day bags, we went straight to the Minquan West Road station where we got a 24 hour metro card (NT$180). Then we hopped on a train to Tamsui, got breakfast (cheese stuffed bread…yum), and hopped on a bus to Danhai to see the Tan-Shui Kang Fishing Harbor. After scoring a bucket of spicy squid for NT$100, we returned back to Tamsui and visited Fort Santo Domingo, the Former British Consulate Residence, Oxford College, the Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence, and schools built by George MacKay. It was a short walk back into Tamsui for lunch (combo platter of BBQ chicken, fish ball soup, bok choy vegetables and steamed rice, NT$160) before we stopped in on a couple of temples and got lost in the scrum of people at Tamsui Old Street. Everyone was out looking for food…we were amazed at the long lines for cakes and other street goodies. Back on the MRT, we hopped over to Beitou to soak in the hot springs. After walking to the Beitou thermal valley, we joined the throng of visitors to the Millennium hot spring (NT$40 entrance). Robby was told his board shorts weren’t allowed so he had to buy tight men’s swim trunks, ha. The hot springs were bliss and we had to jump from hot pool to cold pool every few minutes to make it more bearable. From Beitou, we jumped back on the MRT and then took a local bus to the National Museum (open on Friday and Saturday until 9 pm at a discounted rate of NT$ 150). Unfortunately, no one told us that from 6:30 pm onward, photography of any type was not permitted. We would have opted to visit during the day, as some of the displays were fabulous. Both of us were exhausted but forced ourselves to get street food at the popular Shilin Night Market for dinner. It was nearing 11 pm when we finally reached the hostel and crashed in our bed. The AC was on tonight and people were a bit quieter so we both had no problems falling asleep.
13 Nov – Since we still had about an hour of usage on our 24-hour metro card, we woke up early and rode out to the furthest attraction, the Taipei Zoo (entrance NT$60). It was packed on a Sunday but we enjoyed it. From the zoo, we hopped over to the Martyrs memorial for the hourly changing of the guard. Fantastic ceremony and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was nearing 4 pm when we decided to make our way for a sunset view overlooking Taipei at Elephant Hill. First we had to walk back to the metro station and ride it to the end of the red line. From there, we followed the hiking trail signs for a steep 20-minute hike up the hill. Lonely Planet did not lie about how busy it would be on a weekend…the place was packed on a Sunday night but we managed to get some decent sunset and night shots. Afterwards, we wearily made our way over to the impressive Taipei 101 building and had dinner at the food court in the basement. Here, we got a set menu of pork chops with bak choi, fishball soup and pork and rice for only NT$150 and another meal of pepper beef on a sizzling hot plate for NT$159…yum). When we returned to the hostel, we were happy to discover that no one else was in our room. We had the entire place to ourselves…yay! After sweltering all day long, the showers felt heavenly and we were able to do a bit of laundry. It’s crazy how “on the go” we’ve been since we hit Taiwan two days ago! We are both ready for some down time!
14 Nov – Happy birthday to Robby! Lucky guy also has a super moon to check out on his birthday…it will be the biggest one we’ll see in decades! After a bit of a sleep in, we checked out of Lucky One Hostel and took the metro to the Taipei city hall bus station where we bought a bus/train combo ticket to Hualien for NT$209. The bus to Lou Dong was comfortable but traffic was a mess so it took an extra hour to get to the train station. In Lou Dong, we wanted to catch the first train to Hualien, so we agreed to pay an extra NT$26 to upgrade (we could have waited another 2 hours for the slow local train but the extra 80 cent upgrade was worth it). When we arrived in Hualien we walked to Holo Hostel Hotel and checked in. Even though we had booked a double room (NT$1620 for 2 nights), we were given a spacious quad room for the two of us. Friendly helpful staff at the Holo hostel! We asked for a scooter recommendation and were pointed down the street towards the train station. A few minutes later, we were negotiating with the friendly staff at TTA Rental Company (03-8465558). They didn’t speak English so Becky negotiated the entire transaction in Chinese which left Robby in amazement since he’s never heard her string together more than a few phrases at a time. We scored a 2 day rental for NT$350 since it was already almost 3 pm by the time we got the bike and the office would close tomorrow at 5:30 pm. Best thing was we didn’t need a Taiwanese scooter license. Robby just handed them his US drivers license and good to go. We hopped on the bike and started driving towards Taroko Gorge when a helpful local lady asked us at the traffic light where we were headed. Since she was headed home and lived near Taroko Gorge, she told us to follow her as she took us on some back roads before we swung out onto the main “highway”. She was pretty excited that we were visiting Taiwan and was keen to show us some highlights along the way, stopping to explain in detail. It was very sweet of her to act as a spontaneous tour guide. When we reached her house, she pointed it out and told us to stop by anytime if we needed anything at all…she was willing to help us out. What a gem! We have run into numerous Taiwanese who go out of their way to be helpful and friendly; this country is amazing! Our new friend was worried we wouldn’t be able to find our way to the gorge and offered to take us there but we reassured her that with GPS, we were all set. After taking a selfie and finding her on Facebook, we were on our way again. Taroko gorge, even in the late afternoon, is mesmerizing. The further we drove in, the better the views got. After zipping our way around the gorge, we realized how lucky we were to have our own wheels – the busloads of tourists were on a strict schedule and had to hurry from sight to sight while we were able to take as much time as we wanted at each location. One of the off-putting things about visiting Taroko were all the warning signs about falling rock. Apparently several tourists have been killed and countless injured due to sudden landslides and falling rocks. There were signs everywhere advising that a helmet be worn at all times, so we got in the habit of hopping off our scooter, flipping the visor back and snapping photos with helmet attached. By 5:15 pm, it was getting dark so we decided to turn back into town. Driving in Taiwan is easy compared to Vietnam with the exception of making left hand turns and right turns on red are not allowed. It took us a while to master the 90 degree left turn – first you pull over to the far right lane, wait for the light to be green, drive straight into a “waiting zone” area in front of waiting traffic that is coming from the road on the right of the intersection. The traffic light will be red, so you have to wait until the light changes before you can drive straight across the intersection. Essentially, if you want to make a left turn at a red light, you have to wait through two red lights to complete the maneuver. If it sounds complicated, it was a bit tricky at first. Blue sign below indicates how it should be done.
Back in Hualien, we dropped off all our stuff and struck out in search of a night market. Unbeknownst to us, the night market we thought was a mere 700 meters away has been relocated to the other side of town. We kept walking until we found a Vietnamese restaurant that looked appealing. Yup, we left Vietnam to go to Taiwan and ended up eating at a Vietnamese place for Robby’s birthday! Our dinner was amazing though and well worth the splurge (NT$350). We got 2 plates of fried spring rolls, stir fry octopus and beef fried rice…yum! Our waitress spoke no English so we got to use both Chinese and Vietnamese tonight…it was fun to be able to have a conversation with her without using any English at all. After dinner, it was time to try the unique Taiwanese drink of boba tea. Also called pearl milk tea, this stuff is super addictive. Stuffed with tapioca “pearls”, we got to suck each one of them up with a massive straw. Super yum and we couldn’t believe we waited until day 4 to try this drink. We are going to have to make up for lost time! After stocking up on some snacks and alcohol at a nearby supermarket, we returned to the hostel and discovered that the night market has recently been relocated. Apparently it is now several kilometers away and would require a NT$150 taxi ride…no thanks! We had a pretty chill night checking out the supermoon over our beverages.
15 Nov – We got up early and had breakfast before heading our early on our scooter to revisit Taroko Gorge. Heavy rain was in the forecast for today and we wanted to see everything we missed before the weather turned nasty. The early morning weather was spectacular and we revisited a bunch of stops that we saw yesterday because the lighting was different today. The views were spectacular and we really enjoyed having the freedom of our own 2 wheels. Since the inclement weather seemed to be holding off, we ended up doing a couple of short hikes to admire the scenery and get some panoramic shots. After getting our fill of Taroko, we drove back to Hualien and checked out the new night market spot. It commands a huge area near the waterfront but it definitely is way too far of a walk from our hostel. After checking out a couple of the seaside monuments, we returned the bike and discovered to our dismay that the fuel guage happened to dip below the agreed spot but we rectified that by forking over an additional NT$30 to make up the difference. Then it was an early buffet dinner where we left stufffed. Not too stuffed for a boba tea for dessert though! That stuff is so good…where has it been all our lives?
16 Nov – Today was a travel day so we woke up just before 7:30 AM and went down for breakfast before checking out. Back at the Hualien train station, we bought another combo ticket to return to Taipei and took the slow train back to Lou Dong. The slow train stops at every single stop and there are no assigned seats but it wasn’t busy and we had plenty of room. From Lou Dong, we boarded a Kamalan bus (one departing every 10 minutes) back to Taipei’s main station. At the main station, we quickly found the bus terminal where we bought our tickets for a Ho Hsin bus to Tainan (NT$340). The bus was super comfy and extremely spacious. Our 5 hour bus ride flew by and before we knew it, we were in Tainan. Apparently there isn’t a central bus station in Tainan so we were dropped off at a random bus stop near a park in the center of the city. But no matter, it was a short walk to our hotel, the centrally located Tie Dao Hotel (NT$1160 for 2 nights). Even though our room was located on the 14th floor, it had an inward facing view looking at another building so unfortunately no Tainan city view. We had read that Tainan is a city for foodies, so we immediately went out in search of some of its best dishes. Chih Kan Pedder’s Noodle is a restaurant that serves many of the must try meals so we ordered the oyster omelet, Danzai noodles, pan fried milk fish, braised pork over rice, coffin break stuffed with seafood, and garlic pork (NT$500). What a way to kick off our Tainan food tour! Afterwards, Becky still had room for tofu pudding, a Tainan specialty (NT$25 for a massive bowl). Robby opted for boba tea instead and once our bellies were completely stuffed, we headed back to our room to chill. We had read online that the Tie Dao had free porn which we can definitely attest to being true. Its comically bad porn though so don’t make a special effort to book this hotel for it!
17 Nov – After getting boba tea for breakfast, we spent several hours doing the Lonely Planet Tainan temple walking tour (excellent). Lunch was at a no-name restaurant which was packed with locals. We wanted to know what they knew about this place…turns out you can get great food for cheap prices. We had 2 bowls of chicken noodle soup and lamb dumplings for lunch and it only cost us NT$100. In the afternoon, we hopped onto bus 77 to Anping where we checked out the fort and tree house. Skip the fort and head directly to the tree house, it is amazing! We really enjoyed the overgrown trees and can only imagine what Angkor Wat’s temples must have looked like several decades ago. While in Anping, we decided to visit Anping Bean Jelly for two delicious bowls of tofu pudding with tapioca pearls before having dinner at Chou’s Shrimp Rolls. There we ordered a whopping 5 dishes of shrimp rolls much to the staff’s amusement. They asked us how many friends would be joining us and we had to explain we really like shrimp rolls and all that food was for the 2 of us! To head back to Tainan, we had to hop on tourist bus 88 which brought us back to Fort Proventia for NT$18. It was a short walk back to our hotel where we couldn’t resist getting another boba tea to end the night.
18 Nov – Back to Taipei. After checking out of the hotel, we grabbed 2 boba teas for the road and found the nearby Ho Hsin bus office where we bought return tickets to Taipei (NT$340). Traffic was good and we were back to the Taipei main station before we knew it. Making our way back to our hostel (Lucky One) was a breeze and the friendly receptionist remembered us from our first visit. She kindly upgraded us to a 2 bed dorm for free, which we appreciated. After dropping off our bags, we took the metro to visit Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Liberty Square. We arrived early enough to wander around until the 5 PM changing of the guard, which is the last one for the day. Instead of watching the soldiers getting relieved of their duty, we watched as they marched collectively down from their guard post to the center of Liberty Square where they conducted a flag lowering ceremony. It was dark when the ceremony was complete so we lingered around long enough for a couple of night shots before hopping on the metro to the Shilin night market. Even though it is very touristy, it is immensely popular with locals too and we found the place packed. For dinner we had a couple of savory pastries, big sausage wrap small sausage (Da Chang Bao Xiao Chang 大腸包小腸), boba tea, a massive pork sausage, and a generous serving of suncake (condensed malt suger cake). We were convinced to try it after spotting the ridiculous long line of locals patiently waiting on cake! Aaahhh, Taiwan – definitely a foodie’s paradise.
19 Nov – Our last full day in Taiwan. Since the Bao’an Temple was within walking distance, we felt it would be wrong to skip it. While there, a local lady recommend that if we were into temples, we should make a special effort to visit the Qin Shang Temple this evening since it was a special night full of parades, fireworks and displays. Next we walked to the Lin An Tai historical house. It was worth a quick visit since it was free. The big event of our day was visiting the Tank Kung Bar-B-Q restaurant for lunch right when it opened at 11:30 am. This place is famous for their Mongolian BBQ and hotpots. We skipped the hotpots and went for the all you can eat Mongolian BBQ buffet bar (stocked with bottomless chicken, venison, pork, mutton and beef) all for the bargain price of NT$450. Little did we know but Becky’s dad told us that Mongolian barbecue is a stir fried dish that was invented in Taiwan in the 1950s. Tank Kung was packed with locals and we knew we had come to the right place. 2 hours and countless bowls of food later, we took a short breather before hitting the dessert bar to complement our meal with ice-cream and tapioca pearls. Needless to say we felt slightly sick for the rest of the afternoon after our massive glutton fest. We definitely got our money’s worth! The afternoon was spent on a free walking tour that met up at the NTU Hospital MRT stop. There we met the guides from “tourmeaway.com” for our Old Town Taipei tour. We got to walk off our massive meal and visit the 228 Peace Memorial Park, Presidential Office, Inner City Market, 73 flavors ice cream shop (wasabi or pork knuckle ice cream anyone?), Zhongshan Hall , Ximending, and Red House. After our tour, we headed over to Qin Shang Temple to check out the festivities before strolling over to Longshan Temple and its nearby Huaxi Night Market. What a day! Back at the hostel, we got ready for an early morning checkout since our flight back to Saigon was at 9 am.
20 Nov: Catching a bus from Minquan West Station to the Taoyuan international airport was fairly straightforward. Buses start running from 6 am and we were on a bus by 6:30 am (NT$83), considerably cheaper than the NT$125 we paid to get into town when we flew in. Checking in for our flight was uneventful and before we knew it, we were stamped out of Taiwan and headed back to Vietnam. Sigh…such a whirlwind tour of this lovely country and we only scratched its surface. We are both going through boba tea withdrawals and are already contemplating a return trip back to this vibrant Asian nation!