From Vietnam to Taiwan: A Traveller’s Guide

activities - Saigon/HCMC: Aug. 29, 2016

Taiwan is a wonderful holiday destination and is just three and a half hours from Ho Chi Minh City, with ten flights per day from EVA Air, China Airlines, Vietnam Airlines and others.

A small island state situated off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan is roughly equidistant between Vietnam and Japan, and due north of Manila in the Philippines. It covers an area of roughly 36,000km and is home to 23.5 million people, most of whom speak Mandarin as a first language. The local currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, of which there are 31 to the US Dollar. The capital city and municipality of Taipei sits at the north of the island.

photo by Mittmac

Taipei is a cosmopolitan city full of culture and arts. Street performers are a common sight. The city’s most famous landmark is of course the Taipei 101, the tallest “green” skyscraper in the world, standing at 508 metres. The famous Ubike system of bicycle hire is in operation in Taipei. Bikes are parked in clearly marked stands. You just put in some money and ride off. This has proved to be highly successful.

Food

The country was first inhabited by aboriginal tribes, then settled by people from the Fujian region of China. The Hakka people arrived, also from China, and in the 16th century the Portuguese arrived. The Dutch colonised the island in the 17th century and the Spanish came soon after, and then the Japanese. One can imagine with this history, that Taiwanese food is a veritable melting pot of cuisines.

The street food around the night markets is very high quality; among the best in the world. There are over 100 night markets and indeed the whole country is a full-on 24 hour per day culinary delight. With most dishes costing less than a dollar, this is a very inexpensive way to sustain oneself. The noodle dishes are wonderful, as are the fine array of dumplings, savoury pastries and buns. Seafood is extraordinary on the island. The famous Dong Khung Tuna festival is held in the south each year. The bubble tea famous across Asia originated in Taiwan. The island produces high quality mangoes and mango shaved ice is available everywhere, famous through the region.

“The street food around the night markets is among the best in the world. The whole country is a full-on 24 hour per day culinary delight.”

Iron eggs are small eggs that have been stewed repeatedly in soy sauce, then air-dried. They are dark brown on the outside, have a chewy texture, and are delicious. Another local favourite are Xiao Chi, meaning small eats. The Taiwanese love their snacks. At markets like Ningxia Night Market you can get fried oyster omelettes, gua bao (Taiwanese burgers), stinky tofu and traditional rice balls. Shallot pancakes are very popular, look out for the queues to make sure you get a good one.

Shopping

There are an incredible number of shopping malls in the country, specifically in Taipei. These are not small as in Ho Chi Minh City, but huge affairs with hundreds of shops offering thousands of shopping experiences. The months of May and October are dedicated as discount shopping months and the Taiwanese turn out in their millions in search of bargains.

photo by Leon

The country is of course, world renowned for electronics and phones, computers and TVs are all big sellers here. But there is much more to it than that. The Ximending shopping area of Taipei is very popular among youth for clothing, cosmetics and everything else that they require. Elite Spectrum is a 24-hour bookstore chain, offering thousands of titles. The night markets fill a huge gap as well, not just being for food.

Medical Tourism

As with many other countries in Asia, Taiwan has developed an enviable trade in medical tourism. Understandably, the largest group of medical tourists come from China. Geographically well placed and sharing Mandarin as a language, they come in large numbers to take advantage of the excellent quality of service and the inexpensive nature of Taiwanese hospitals. More surprisingly, many come from Thailand. This speaks volumes for the level of service, when Thailand itself is famous for medical tourism.

The country’s hospitals specialise in cancer and neurological treatments. By 2013, some 80,000 patients per year were pouring in for packages that feature everything from Western-style physicals to cosmetic surgery, plus Chinese preventive Medicine.

However, Taiwan is not all about Taipei. If you visit, take time to discover the other delights that this lovely island has to offer.

Danshui

Now more commonly known as Tamsui, this is a small, beautiful fishing village and a district of Taipei. The old streets are teeming with speciality food. It is serviced by a metro from Taipei’s main station. The journey takes only 30 minutes, meaning that this is very popular with the locals as well as tourists. It’s a university town and therefore inhabited by a young trendy set.

“Now more commonly known as Tamsui, this is a small, beautiful fishing village and a district of Taipei.”

Fort San Domingo was built by the Spanish, destroyed and then rebuilt by the Dutch. It’s a remarkable building that now houses a museum. These days it’s referred to as the Former British Consular Residence, and is a popular tourist attraction. Another famous attraction in the Fisherman’s Wharf is the Lover’s Bridge. This white cable-stayed bridge, earned its name as construction commenced on Valentine’s Day, 2003. This is a great place for beautiful sunset views.

Tainan

Tainan is the former capital of the country and as a result is steeped in history. It has to be said, this is probably the most beautiful city in the country. It was, in its day, the regional base of the Dutch East India Company, and is home to some of the country’s oldest temples, forts and ruins. Some of the oldest buildings here are preserved in excellent condition. It is home to the country’s oldest Mazu and Confucian temples.

The National Museum of Taiwan History is one of the best in the region. It took 12 years to build before finally opening in 2011. It covers the full story of Taiwan’s incredible and turbulent history, using life sized models of people. Early cargo ships are depicted to show how the early Han Chinese settlers arrived.

Sun Moon Lake

The Sun Moon Lake in Nantou is a popular tourist destination and an extremely beautiful place in which to spend some time. There is a wonderful 30km cycle path around the Lake, which was named by CNN as one of the top ten bicycle lanes in the world. Bikes can be hired everywhere in this country, and if you like to cycle, this is unmissable.

Penghu Island

Penghu Island has become popular as of late, thanks to the increase of bioluminescent algae here, possibly due to global warming. Called blue tears by the locals, swimming at night among this amazing natural phenomenon is exhilarating and romantic. CNN named it as one of the 15 natural scenic wonders of the world.

photo by Isander

Tourists wishing to witness it need to fly to Tainan and take a boat trip to get to the island.

Lanyu Island

Orchid Island, as it is also called, sits off the southeast tip of the country and is home to the Tao indigenous people, who have lived here for 800 years. Green Sea Turtles nest here, whilst beautiful coral reefs surround the island. Four species of sea snakes are found in the surrounding seas, whilst Humpback Whales are a historically common sight, and can still be found here.

“Green Sea Turtles nest here, whilst beautiful coral reefs surround the island. “

The island’s Flying Fish Festival is a traditional coming-of-age ceremony for young men, whose societal standing was based on how many fish they could catch. The springtime festival takes place between March and May and is very localised, with each village celebrating it on different days chosen by the village elders. The men wear traditional Tao loincloths and bark helmets. They smear the blood of a slaughtered chicken on the rocks by the sea then head out to fish. Women are not allowed to watch, but most villages make exceptions for visitors. If travelling in a party of eight, it is possible to arrange for fishermen to take you out fishing during the season.

Taiwan is a land of much contrast and great beauty. Whether you are in search of peace and quiet, culture and history, or a great nightlife, you are in for a good time.