Let’s Go Exploring! Taiwan: The Heart of Asia Part 2

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The WRONG way to eat xiao long bao (soup dumplings)

  • Step 1: Shove entire soup dumping into mouth.
  • Step 2: Bite down and unleash an inferno of soup lava onto tongue.
  • Step 3: Run flailing and screaming, mouth first into a nearby lake

The RIGHT way to eat xiao long bao

  • Step 1: Take a tiny bite from the side, creating a small hole in the skin.
  • Step 2: Let the steam escape.
  • Sept 3: Slowly sip the soup through the hole. Place sufficiently cooled xiao long bao in mouth. Chew.
  • Step 3: Avoid getting 3rd degree mouth burns. Success!

After mastering the delicate art of devouring xiao long baos in Taipei, we headed to Tainan for…

You guessed it…more food!

Even though it was only a short 3-hour train ride from Taipei, I could immediately tell that tourists rarely venture out this far. We could count the number of non-Asian people on one hand.

Although English was pretty widely spoken in downtown Taipei, hardly anyone spoke English in Tainan.

Don’t let that discourage you though. You’ll meet lots of kind Taiwanese who will go out of their way to help you. Even their hotel names prove this fact:

Just like Taipei, Tainan had a unbelievable number of night markets. Our favourite is the Garden Night Market (花園夜市) and the Ta-Tung Night Market (大東夜市), where we ate everything we could get our hands on. It was hella crowded (way more crowded than night markets in Thailand), but so worth it.

Since Tainan is the foodie mecca of Taiwan, we never ran out of strange and wonderful specialities to try.

Specialties like:

Coffin Toast (棺材板)

Hands down, the weirdest name for a dish we’ve ever come across is “Coffin Toast”. I have no idea who came up with this name, but given how superstitious Chinese culture is, I’m not sure how they got a single local to eat it.

It even looks creepy, with a square hole cut into the bread which is supposed to resemble a coffin (hence the name I guess).

When I asked the locals about this ominous-sounding dish, they told me that the words “棺材”, which means “coffin,” is supposed to have a double, auspicious meaning. Since mandarin is a tonal language, 棺, sounds like 官, which means “official” or “person in power.” And “材” sounds like the second part of “发财”, which means “get rich.” So, if you look it that way, it’s supposed to mean “be a boss, get rich.” Suuure. Totally. How could you possibly not buy that explanation?

If you’re curious and want try this weird dish, go to “Chikan Eatery”, the restaurant that invented it:

Address: No.180, Zhongzheng Rd., West Central Dist

 

Dan Dan Mian/Peddler’s Noodles(担担面)

Known as “wooden stick noodles”, this famous dish is named after the walking street vendors who carried the dish in two baskets attached to a pole on their shoulders. Originating from Sichuan province (the province where I’m from, so clearly, I’m not biased), this dish is a spicy mix of hand pulled noodles, covered with crunchy preserved veggies, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, scallions, and minced pork. Yum!

Wanderer kept calling it “tent-pole noodles” for some reason. Maybe because every time he ate it, it gave him a tent pole? Who knows?

Get it at: Du Hsiao Yueh Restaurant:
Address: No. 101號, Zhongzheng Road, West Central District, Tainan City, Taiwan 700

 

Eel Noodles (阿江鱔魚意麵)

This dish tastes way better than it sounds. The combination of worm-like noodles and snake-like eels isn’t going to win any culinary awards, but it sure tastes like comfort food from your favourite mom and pop restaurant.

Or in this case, one of those hole-in-the-wall places that you miss if you blink while walking by it. What set it apart from the other stalls is the crazy line up of locals right outside.

As they say in Asia “the worse the seating, the better the food”, and this stall proved that point. It wasn’t fancy, but what it lacked in décor, it made up for in taste. As soon as I got my bowl of chewy noodles, I was in culinary heaven. The eel was soft and so tender it nearly melted on my tongue. The soup, thick and savoury, had the perfect balance of sweet and sour with a just tinge of spicy from the flecks of chili peppers. The noodles were perfectly el dente. I practically licked the bowl clean and asked for a second helping.

You have two choices for the eel noodles: dry or wet. I personally preferred the wet noodle. The dry was good too but not as good.

Get it at 阿江鱔魚意麵
Address: No. 89, Section 3, Minzu Road, West Central District, Tainan City, Taiwan 700

Bubble Tea

If, like me, you’re obsessed with bubble tea, you’ll be ecstatic to know that Hanlin Tea Room (翰林茶館) in Tainan is where it was invented! In 1986, inspiration struck when teahouse owner Tu Tsong-he saw some white tapioca balls at the Ya Mu Liao market. He decided to cook it and add it to milk tea, calling the resulting concoction “pearl milk tea”. He had no idea that this delicious treat would be enjoyed all over the world decades later!

Of all the flavours I tried,  “Brown sugar milk tea” is my favourite.

Hanlin Tea House Address: No. 338, Chongming Road, East District, Tainan City, Taiwan 701

Sushi Express

Because of its Japanese influence, Taiwan had some of the best sushi we’ve had outside of Japan. Our favourite no frills spot was the conveyor belt restaurant “Sushi Express” serving plates for just 30TWD (or $1 USD). I especially loved the pudding dessert with melted brown sugar topping. So good!

Since this is a franchise, you can easily find it all over Tainan and Taiwan.

Once your pants are about to burst you can work off all those calories by checking out all the attractions.

 

Anping Old Fort (安平古堡)

Did you know that Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch back in the 1600s? They built a fort called “Zeelandia” in the southern part of Taiwan and used it as a military base until they got kicked out by the Chinese army, led by General Koxinga (you’ll see a lot of references to and buildings named after “Koxinga” all over Tainan).

Maybe the Dutch should’ve thought a bit harder about building a fort made of sugar, sand, ground seashells, and glutinous rice? (seriously, that’s what the original walls were made of)

 

Anping Tree House (安平樹屋)

This attraction reminded me of Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, Cambodia but on a smaller scale. It’s basically an ancient house swallowed up by a giant tree. Everywhere you look, you can’t tell where the brick walls begin and where tree roots end. It’s a perfect example of how man-made objects and trees can exist in perfect harmony.

Plus, I think it would be the perfect spot to film a horror movie. Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but whenever I saw a tree root, I couldn’t help but think of knotted skeletal hands and feet. Ooh, how deliciously creepy!

 

National Museum of Taiwan History (國立臺灣歷史博物館)

If you want to learn about the history of Taiwan, this museum has it all. It starts all the way at the beginning, from the natives who inhibited the island, to the migration of people here from mainland China, to the Japanese invasion, to present day. They even had life-sized models to show you all the traditional Chinese customs, the influence from the Japanese, and how Taiwanese culture evolved over time.

Entrance fee was only 125 TWD (4 USD), which included the audio guide. The museum is a bit of a ways out of the city (but that’s also part of the charm as it’s located next to a serene lake and a good spot to get away from all the traffic). You can take bus (#18) from Tainan Station.

 

Hot Springs (Guan Zi Ling)


Since we were in Taiwan, the land of hot springs, we of course, HAD to go to another hot spring. But everyone we spoke to told us that Tainan isn’t the place for that. If we wanted to go to a hot spring, the closest is “Guan Zi Ling”, which is 2 hours outside the city and a pain to get to.

I’m not sure why I was so obsessed and stubborn about going to Guan Zi Ling, but through trial and error and bugging no less than a dozen locals, we eventually found our way there and my mandarin got a good workout.

If you like a challenge, follow these instructions to get there from Tainan:

  1. Take the train from Tainan Station to Xin Yin (新營)station (56 TWD per person slow train, 87 TWD for 2 people for fast train. Travel time is around 1 hour versus 40 mins).
  2. At XinYin, ask the tourist information booth for map and bus schedule of Guan Zi Ling. Bus leaves once every hour. Cost is around 45 TWD per person in cash or discounted by metro card. Metro cards can be filled at 7-11s.
  3.  Cross the street from the tourist information booth to the bus station and take the Yellow line bus to Bei He (白河轉運站). You will have 20 mins at BeiHe to wait for the bus (yellow line) to Guan Zi Ling. Cost is 40 TWD per person
  4. Overall time: 2 hours each way. Overall cost around 140-170 TWD per person each way.

Once you get to Guan Zi ling, go to the Toong Mao hotel and spa (關子嶺統茂溫泉會館). The cost is 320 TWD each ($11 USD) for unlimited hours of spa-ing.

They had 6 or 7 thermal pools, all at different temperatures, a cold pool with scented oils, and even a fish foot spa! You can enjoy all of this surrounded by nature and it reminded me so much of a Japanese Onsen.

Because it was so hard to get to, we were the only tourists there (just make sure you go on a weekday to avoid the local weekend crowd). It was hands down our favourite spa experience in Taiwan. Just make sure you don’t miss your bus, otherwise that’s going to be an expensive taxi ride back.

 

Where to stay:

Given all the historical attractions, Anping was the most touristy area in all of Tainan. But I’m glad we decided to stay near Tainan Station (台南車站), which made it easier to walk to all the night markets and restaurants. We then took a bus to the historical sites in Anping, which was painfully slow since traffic was so bad. I found myself missing Taipei’s efficient subway network. (Note: Travelling within cities in Taiwan, don’t forget to get the transportation card, which gives you significantly discounts on fares and can be loaded at 7-11s all over the city.)

Luckily getting into Tainan from Taiwan was an easy bullet train ride to the HSR train station, and then another train ride into the city via the local train. Just make sure you account for this extra travel time (around 30-45mins) between the city and the HSR station when going back to Taipei.

We actually ended up booking our accommodations through Agoda.com, which had better prices that Airbnb (I found the exact same apartment on Airbnb for 20% more). So when you’re in Asia, make sure to check Agoda in addition to Airbnb for deals.

Our $37 USD/night apartment in Tainan

 

Meteor Garden: Nostalgia Level 1000!

Many people reading this will have no idea what I’m talking about, but for those we who grew up watching Taiwan’s 2001 hit TV series “Meteor Garden” (流星花園), you will flip out when you find out that the show was filmed at National Chung Cheng University, a 1.5 hour drive from Tainan!

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, think of this as the Backstreet boys of Asia, who starred in a TV show based on the Japanese manga “Boys Over Flowers” (花より男子). To summarize the story, it’s about 4 snooty rich kids (aka “F4”) who go to an ultra-expensive private school and the feisty poor girl (whose parents had to get multiple jobs to earn enough for her to attend) who was the only one brave enough to stand up to them. Eventually the meanest of the bunch, Dao Ming Si, ends up falling hopelessly in love with her but she rejects him causing him to realize that there are things in life that money can’t buy.

It’s so popular there are no fewer than 8 versions of the story and the latest one is even on Netflix! (look up “Meteror Garden”). This show was so big it turned “F4” into mega superstars and they even formed a boy-band from it!

I have to admit, I fan-girled pretty hard when I got here. The minute I go to the floor where they filmed the scene with Shancai’s locker, I kind of lost it and started shrieking like a hormonal 15-year-old girl.

Here’s a recap of my insanity:

Holy shit, it’s the road where Shan Cai rode into school in the first episode!

Opening scene with the snooty rich girls:

Here’s the staircase shot into the school.

 

Squee! It’s Shan Cai’s locker: 150!

The spot where she gets bullied by Dao Ming Si!

And Tranquility Lake, where she went to escape from the torment of the F4.

Oh and for level one million Meteor Garden-related nostalgia, click below

Needless to say visiting the set of Meteor Garden was the highlight of my visit to Tainan.

Oh yeah and the food. Oh God the food. *droooooooool*

Crap I drowned my keyboard again!

Ahem. ANYHOO…here’s how much we spent in Tainan:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $37 USD $49 CAD Our condo in Tainan was an improvement from the original one in Taipei but still tiny and in an older building. If you're spoiled by Thailand and looking for fancy new condos with pool for $20/day, you won't find them in Taiwan.
Food: $27 USD $35 CAD ($26 for eating out, $9 for groceries) Food was cheaper in Tainan than Taipei and in my opinion better tasting. This isn't surprising since Tainan is known as the foodie capital of Taiwan.
Transportation: $8 USD/day $11 CAD/day Including the train from Tainan to Taiwan and the buses we took around Tainan and for day trips out of the city, we still average only $11 per day for the 2 weeks we spent there. If you stay in the area near Tainan station, it's pretty accessible by foot to the good restaurants and night markets.
Entertainment: $7/day $9 CAD/day Entertainment consisted of the museum, getting our hair washed, entry to the spa at Guan Zi Ling, and entry to the Anping fort and tree house. We did a lot in the city in a little over 2 weeks and the cost was quite low due to the fact that most attractions in Taiwan are inexpensive.
Total: $79 USD/couple/day $104 CAD/couple/day We spend slightly more in Tainan than in Taipei because we ended up doing more activities and spending more on transportation. Tainan is better value than Taipei but transportation is a pain. If you're interested in getting off the beaten path, I would definitely visit Tainan. Plus, you'll get to try out your mandarin with the locals!

What do you think? Would you go to Taiwan? Have you ever heard of the show “Meteror Garden”?


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20 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Taiwan: The Heart of Asia Part 2”

  1. I spent two years in Taiwan back in my 20s, and it was hands down the friendliest country I have ever visited. In fact, Taiwanese people have become my benchmark for rating how welcoming a country is, and I now say things like: we moved to the Maritimes because people here are so nice that they are the Taiwanese of Canada! 😀

    And the food, even humble dishes bought from street stalls, is on another level. Still miss the dumplings, I might need to go back after reading your article!

    1. “we moved to the Maritimes because people here are so nice that they are the Taiwanese of Canada!”

      Haha. I love it. That’s such a traveller thing to say, like when I saw “JiuFien is the Santorini for Taiwan”.

      Glad you enjoyed Taiwan! You and I both have a soup dumpling addiction now.

  2. I was introduced to Din Tai Feng on one of my trips to Shanghai. I became a fan of soup dumplings. I visited Shanghai 10+ times in the last 4 years. I probably ate at almost all the Din Tai Feng locations in the city. My kids joke that I only go to Shanghai to have soup dumplings. I want to visit Taipei and go to the original Din Tai Feng that started all.

    1. I don’t blame you, Joe. After DTF, I’m now totally addicted to Xiao Long Bao. I’d probably go out of my way to eat it too.

  3. Wow! adding this to my travel list. Need to know who ran mouth first after eating xiao long bao dumplings the wrong way. It definitely would be me! I’ve had pizza mouth burn many times!

    1. Ha ha, I’ve felt the pizza burn many times too. Xiao Long Bao burns are a whole new level of pain. Hope you go to Taiwan to try it.

  4. I live in Shanghai and on my daily walk home, I pass an outdoor vendor selling dumplings and variations. It is extremely hard to walk past without stopping but I try to limit visits to once or twice a week. Maybe sometimes three times. It is bad when they recognize you and know what your order will be before you make it.

    1. “It is bad when they recognize you and know what your order will be before you make it.”

      Ha ha. That’s totally us. The DTF people were like “oh you guys again. Same order as yesterday?”

  5. Guan Zi Ling hot springs looks wonderful. My kind of vacation! Although I don’t know if I would want to get into a swimsuit after eating ALL the dumplings.

    1. “I don’t know if I would want to get into a swimsuit after eating ALL the dumplings.”

      That was my dilemma too. I was thinking I can only wear muu muus from now on…

  6. The food looks awesome. Although, I don’t think the seating thing is quite true anymore. Upscale places have really good food too.
    Question – how many days should we visit to get a good feel for Taiwan? Is a week enough? I’ll try to stopover on the way back from Thailand at some point.

  7. You forgot Nu Roe Mian, and Cho Dofu… Specialty dishes of central Taiwan.

    Cho Dofu, translates as “Stinky Tofu” and it is stinky, but tastes great…

  8. A suggestion if you’re still in Taiwan or if you return sometime in the not-so-distant future: did you know that the medical system here has fairly affordable complete medical exams at major hospitals? You might want to set a day aside (or maybe a day and a night, in case they want to monitor your sleep) and get them to check you, as my Navy friends would say, from stem to stern. The work Taiwanese doctors do is first rate and the way the physicals work is the more you pay, the more they check! I’m aiming at doing one this year sometime, maybe during summer vacation so that I’ll have some time for any suggested follow-up treatments.

    FYI!

    Dan V
    Taipei

      1. My pleasure! It’s really amazing what they do over here, not just in the medical arena, but in a bunch of others: computers/technology, the transportation system, the rental bike system, you name it!

        Dan V
        Taipei

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