Ten Tips for the Taipei Tourist

It’s been far too long since I last wrote on this blog. I am pleasantly surprised it is still available. Since then, I’ve already been to many other places, watched many other movies, which were very blog worthy but I never had the time (nor patience) to write about.

I recently realized that I must start being a media active contributor rather than being the usual voracious media consumer, as most millennials are wont to do. So, after my recent trip to Taipei, I got the brilliant idea of re-starting this blog again. Yay.

Why Taipei? First, when I was looking for a flight under the 75% off promotion of a local airline, I immediately crossed out other destinations, mainly because I have been to these other places (local and within the region) and anything else out of the continent was out of the question (even with a 75% off promo, it would still be way too expensive) so Taipei were one of the places which fit the bill. Second, I was travelling with cousins, M and C (C ended up not joining us due to work commitments – damn responsibilities always get in the way of fun!), and I wanted to go somewhere none of us had experience with. Lastly, I was so enamored with stories about how good food-tripping was in Taipei, and what better reason was there than great food. Taiwan ended up more than what we expected.

We only stayed for 3 days, 4 nights because we arrived at midnight of Saturday and left Monday evening. But those 3 days, wow, were they full. If we had more energy, we would have stuffed a lot of other activities in there, but we chose not to overextend ourselves.

My first impression: it’s a good hybrid of Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese had control of Taiwan for 60 years, but one can tell that Chinese influence is paramount (the language and script kind of gives it away). My friend’s description is spot on: Taipei is a version of Tokyo.

Without further ado, here are some tips for those thinking of going to Taipei.

  1. Get to know the subway system.

This is true for all cities with efficient train systems. Taipei is one of those. The Taipei Metro (MRT) has 5 lines, and the whole island is easy to navigate using their nationwide rail. Make sure where you’re staying is near a subway station. We stayed at Check Inn Songjiang, a mere 30s away from Xiantian Temple station.

One ride costs anywhere from 20-40 NT$, but weekly passes are available which might be useful if you feel like just staying within city limits.

While we’re at it, props to Check Inn. It may be a bit too hipster for an older person (definitely not my choice if I were traveling with the parentals) but it was warm and cozy, accessible, and cheap. Breakfast was BIG. Breakfast of Champions! Not too shabby indeed.

  1. Bring an umbrella. And sunscreen.

Again, another “the usual.” We visited mid-October, and while monsoon season was over, a week prior to our trip, heavy rains poured in Taiwan. We made sure to bring umbrellas. We did not expect that the weather would be so unpredictable! While just waiting for the bus in Bitou, we experienced: heavy rain, drizzle, intense sunshine, and clouds. All this in a span of 20 minutes. It was all crazy weather the whole we were there (which we partly blame for not having visited all the night markets. HA!) In some subway stations, free umbrellas are available (just get one and return in the next station, if you’re so inclined) but I never saw an umbrella there, so better bring your own.

  1. Send yourself a postcard.

I love getting snail mail, and I think sent postcards are an underrated souvenir. It helps if the place where you’re travelling, like Taiwan, mail service is great. Postage is cheap and post offices are very accessible. A post office was about a 2 min. walk from Check Inn, so that was great. Nevertheless, since the hotel had its own mailbox, I just stuck my postcard in there and the hotel handled the rest. Mail arrived a mere 3 days from mailing, and because I distrust our very own post office, I give a lot of credit to Taiwanese post. Cute postcards are available everywhere, but I especially love those in Jiufen and Pingxi.

Almost all Taiwanese stops also has stamps (think rubber stamp and stamp pad) so your postcards are a nice way of having all these stamps, and a real postage stamp to boot.

  1. Take advantage of the city-wide, even island-wide, free WiFi for tourists.

Yes, they have FREE WiFi! All you have to do is register at any of the Visitor Centers. Online registration is likewise available. I did the online thing before flying in, but you still had to go to a Visitor Center anyway to verify, so better do it all in one go. More information can be found here: Taipei Free WiFi and Taiwan Free WiFI

Please take note that it only works for public buildings, and not outdoors. Still, most if not all train stations have it, and it’s always handy whenever you feel like you need some guidance from the internet.

  1. Go to the Visitor Centers.

Main subway stations have Visitor Centers, where you can register for WiFi (see above) and ask for almost anything touristy. I recommend the Visitor Center in the World Trade Center/Taipei 101 Station, as they were so friendly and helpful, and spoke very good English. M and I went there to ask questions about where to go on our 2nd and 3rd days, and we got well thought out itineraries from the wonderful Piouyuiop (not her real name). They also give out maps, give ideas as to what to eat and where to get them, fastest routes and times of buses and trains, and all sorts of information a tourist might need to navigate Taipei and beyond. Very useful indeed, especially if you have no idea what you’re doing.

  1. Be carefree and ride a bike.

Taipei has a bike sharing program called YouBike and for just NT$5 you can get one of the orange bikes lined along the streets and ride for 30 minutes, then return the bike on any YouBike rack. You can explore lesser known neighborhoods and get in some exercise while on vacation. Just make sure you ride safely (I didn’t see bikers wear helmets and knee pads, but sure, you can do that for safety) and on the right side of the road. From what I saw, Taiwanese drivers are fairly disciplined but since there are many bikers and motorcycle riders, one just has to be extra careful. Also, make sure you pre-planned your route, especially if you can’t speak and read Mandarin.

  1. Skip the mandatory “city tour.”

Because we booked our accommodations through a travel agent, we were subjected to a mandatory city tour, which went to the Presidential Palace (just the front), Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, a “local temple”, “handicraft store,” and the National Museum. From these, only the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, and National Museum are worth a visit. There are so many other things in the city that merits a go other than the “local temple” and store. I regret not visiting the Longshan Temple and Ximending, the oldest temple and the premiere shopping district. I kept putting it off, thinking that because of its popularity, it will surely be part of the tour. Apparently not, as it was in a totally different side of the city. Still, I feel like they are worth the visit.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taiwan’s version of the Lincoln Memorial, opens at 9am. If you get there in time, you’ll see the changing of the guard ceremony. Same goes for Martyr’s Gate. The changing of the guard ceremony in the Martyr’s Gate is much more spectacular, though, as the soldiers walk the full length of the temple to the gate to do the change. It’s longer, yes, but deserves the wait. The National Museum is also worth the visit as it houses nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient artifacts. Entrance to the Museum is at NT$250.

  1. Taipei 101. But be prepared.

Taipei 101 is the ultimate icon of the city, overshadowing every other landmark, and for good reason. It towers over the city in such a magnificent scale, it’s very easy to see why that’s all some people know about Taipei. Going there is easy enough, thanks to the subway, but a gameplan is a must to fully make use of your time in that district. Note that the building also has a 5-floor mall (with a nice view of the top) attached to it, and an office tower, so there’s really much to see and do in the building. Not to mention the numerous other malls around the area.

You can go to the observatory, of course, but you can also explore the restaurants (and Starbucks) on the 86th floor. For that though, reservations are a must.The building also has a nice food court, stores to buy the famous pineapple cake and other local delicacies to bring home, and a grocery, for more mundane stuff. Plan wisely, so you can still have time to line up along with everyone else at the building’s Din Tai Fung (located near the subway exit).

  1. Go outside the city.

While there are so many things to do and places to see in Taipei, exploring beyond the confines of the city would do you well, too. Beitou is technically still within the city but it is in the outskirts, and is a good place to go to relax and experience the Taiwanese hot springs. Yangmingshan National Park is also worth a visit for all nature types out there, as is the Taipei Zoo and Maokong (tea farms). M and I chose to go to Jiufen and Pingxi (jump off point is Ruifang), about two hours travel time from Taipei. Jiufen is an old community by the mountainside in the east part of the island, which is the jump off point to get to the Golden Waterfall, etc. Jiufen Old Street is chockfull of street food and souvenir stores as well. Pingxi, on the other hand, is along the old coal mine rail, as is Dahua, famous for its cat cafes and other cat-related novelties, and Shufen, just two stops away from Pingxi. In Pingxi and Shufen, the most famous activity is releasing lit lanterns to the sky, where you can write and draw all your heart’s desires. We went there just when all the shops are about to close (not a bad idea as you can see the lighted lantern go up, and it was a full moon, so it looked extra special) but you wouldn’t be able to see and do anything else. Going in the afternoon might be better so you can still explore and go to the Shufen waterfalls. Another day trip to consider is the Taroko Gorge, a bit farther south from Pingxi.

  1. Fear not the street food.

Finally, the main reason why we went there: FOOD TRIP! While of course xiao long bao is a must try in Taiwan, as is their milk tea and shaved ice desserts, street food is the way to go. And the best way to experience these gastronomical delights is to explore the night markets, which abound. Try Rahou, the oldest, and they have pork buns, seafood, beef soup, braised pork rice, name it. Other street night markets to try are the Shilin Night Market (get off at Jiantan station, not Shilin station), and those markets near Longshan Temple. Those who are picky about food and fussy about presentation need not try. This is one big culinary adventure.

Xiao long bao recommendations include Hangzhou and Jin Din Rou. Not to mention, the very famous Din Tai Fung. I got the recommendations when I asked the people manning the Visitor Center: If you were to eat XLB right now, where would you go? I’m sure their answers would go beyond DTF every time.

Taipei street food scene is very interesting, and language is definitely a barrier. Just point and it should be fine. Just be ready to be surprised!

All in all, Taipei, and Taiwan in general, really surprised us! We did not realize the great number of things we can do and taste there. It would’ve been better if we planned more and used our time more efficiently, but still we got to do a lot of new things. It was a great trip, to say the least.

Here’s our itinerary:

DAY ONE

8am: Breakfast

930am:  Ride subway to Beitou – transfer to Xinbeitou

1030: Beitou hotsprings,

1pm: Lunch at Mankewu Ramen, ride subway from Xinbeitou to World Trade Center/Taipei 101

2pm: Taipei 101

630pm: Rahou Night Market

DAY TWO

7am: Breakfast

830am: subway to Taipei Main Station, train to Ruifang

11am: Ruifang going to Jiufen

4pm: Jiufen to Ruifang, catch train to Pingxi

7pm: Pingxi to Ruifang

835pm: Ruifang to Taipei Main Station

DAY THREE

7am: Breakfast

8am: City tour (Presidential Palace, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a local temple, handicraft store, Martyr’s Gate, National Museum)

1230: Lunch at Golden China buffet (there’s a back story here)

2pm: Taipei 101 (again)

330pm: Din Tai Fung, Taipei 101

5pm: To airport!

Overall expenses: less than PhP 27,000.00 (US$550), including airfare to and from Manila, food, and souvenirs.

Hyatt’s Market Café

I got DealGrocer vouchers for the Market Café buffet. Market Café is Hyatt Hotel and Casino, located at Pedro Gil corner M.H. del Pilar, Manila. I finally managed to snag a reservation for me and the Parental Units (PU) on Palm Sunday, 1 May 2012.

Hyatt Lobby

From Scrapbook

Hyatt Lobby

From Scrapbook

Hyatt Hotel and Casino is a deluxe 5-star hotel surrounded by attractions such as Intramuros, Luneta, Rizal Parks, Chinatown, Cultural Centre of the Philippines, and the Manila Bay. It has 376 guestrooms and suites, and boasts of several restaurants and lounges and bars: Market Cafe, Li Li, The Fireplace, Pastry Boutique, The Lounge, and Pool Bar. Parking is located at the basement level (100PhP flat rate, validation available). Market Café is at the same floor as the ballrooms, and just an escalator away from the lobby. We arrived at 1100hrs, a full 30 minutes away from our reservation. Nevertheless, we were welcomed at the door of the restaurant by Yssa, who graciously led us to our table. She informed us that the buffet will start at 1130hrs, and closes at 1430, and at that time, they were still preparing for the lunch buffet. She likewise told us that the voucher included bottomless drinks of soda and local beers. We were immediately offered water and drinks, and we simply settled down with the available newspapers. There was also complimentary wifi in the restaurant, so that was a real plus.

I took a look around the buffet stations at around 1120hrs. There was a carving station (roast beef, chicken and lamb); pasta station (tomato and basil sauce, and white sauce); pizza station (2 kinds of pizza); bread and cheese (blue, emmental, cheddar and port sart) and cold cuts; noodle station; dimsum; sushi and sashimi; tempura bar, Indian station; salad; fresh seafood; fruits; cakes and other pastries; and halo-halo station. There was also sea cucumber and other greens (like kailan), but I do not know how to classify them. 😀

Japanese station

From Scrapbook
From Scrapbook

Mini-Tabasco bottles! I’m in heaven!

From Scrapbook
From Scrapbook

The buffet started at 1130hrs. There were not many people in the restaurant, let’s say it was half full at that time, but already the place was abuzz with excitement. PU1 readily attacked the seafood station (as she always does), and PU2 went straight to the greens (as he always does). I went to the cheese station first and got for myself a slice of all the cheeses, some tomatoes with basil, 2 slices of bread and Parma ham. The ham was great, and the cheese standout was Port Salut and Emmental. I then went to the Japanese station, and got everything with salmon on it, and sampled also the red snapper sashimi.

From Scrapbook

Salad station. I skipped this 😀

From Scrapbook

I also sampled the Indian offerings and had some of the buttered chicken (which I think endeavours to be tikka masala), lamb biryani, prawn curry, and patha gobi. The Indian food made me miss New Bombay Restaurant. It was beside the miso soup, so I also got some of that. By this time (already my third trip around), I was already somewhat full. But I still went ahead and got some dimsum (seafood roll, pork siomai, and two others I can not name :))). I also got a can of Kirin Beer from the chiller, and split the same between me and PU2. initially, we agreed that it was just like light beer. After about 20 minutes, we changed our minds and also agreed that it had some substantial alcoholic content 😀 I also had some roast beef with mushroom gravy and ratatouille.

From Scrapbook

To finish  it off, I got a small slice of tres leches cake, macarons, and my all-time favourite dessert, leche flan taken from the halo-halo station. I have to say, the best buffet leche flan goes to Market Café! I loved every bit of it, it was creamy, with just the right level of sweetness.

I did not get to sample everything, it was just too much for one stomach to handle, but all of the food was great. What was especially exceptional was the service. The servers were very attentive, very hospitable, and answered all my questions and catered to all requests (including PU1, who asked for baked oysters, buttered prawns, spinach noodles). Also, they all served with smiles, which is a definite plus. All in all, I was very satisfied with the Market Café buffet, and would definitely want to try it again.

From Scrapbook

Vietnam 19032012

So on to Day 2 of our whirlwind Indochina tour (excluding Laos :D). I wrote about our hotel, Phan Lan, in a previous post. It is along an alley in Pham Ngu Lao ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It has 15 rooms in 6 floors. Our rooms had 2 beds, a bathroom, flat screen TV, and complimentary wifi. Breakfast was also included in our booking, which was 20USD per person per night. We were not allowed to bring our shoes/slippers up the stairs, so we left them at the lobby. We were assigned rooms in the 4th and 5th floors (which were actually the 5th and 6th floors, as they start numbering floors from 0), and we had to climb several flights of stairs as there was no elevator.

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the room, already messed up

We repaired early, as our day was to start at 7am, in time to catch the 8am bus to the Cu Chi tunnels. At that time, we have not yet decided on what to do on our sole day in Ho Chi Minh, and we just thought we had to meet at 6am to think about it. But Van (the doorkeeper/night receptionist) suggested the Cu Chi tunnels tour. By the time we went to our rooms, it was almost 3am, Vietnam time.

— change topic — I was not able to sleep early, as I was really bugged with my roaming service from Globe. I already activated my roaming through text, their *143 service, and by phone. But I had no signal! I would be having this problem for 2 more days before order was restored in the universe. Not to mention haranguing Globe’s customer service every single night I was abroad. Geez, you’d think they would do something about their crappy service as the competition was consolidating, BUT NO! — end rant —

The next morning, that is to say, that very same morning, we woke up early and met for breakfast. The dining room was at the bottom floor (hmm… -1?) and it offered a very homey approach. We felt as if we were just having breakfast at a friend’s house. Breakfast was simple, but pleasant: omelette, Bahn Mi (Vietnamese baguette, very crusty but unlike Filipino pan de sal, airy and hollow), coffee, and pineapple juice (which really tasted like calamansi juice. but very yummy).

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the dining room

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breakfast

We then talked to Van to arrange for our Cu Chi tunnels tour. Thankfully, it can be arranged the morning of, so we just waited for the bus in the alley.The bus could not enter our humble eskinita (Filipino for alley), so we were expecting the bus conductor. It was the only time I got to appreciate the alley. Though very small, it certainly had character. As we were in the backpacker district, one should not really expect that much, but it was good enough. O and Y, being from Manila, were very familiar with the sights and sounds of it all. It was nice, though initially disconcerting, I have to admit. But it grew on me.

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i was trying to capture the Vietnamese hat

We then proceeded to the bus, parked along Pham Ngu Lao. The bus was not out of the ordinary, but full of tourists. There were just a handful of Asians there, though. Most of the tourists were Caucasian. We did not have time or opportunity to talk to them, as we were all in our own small groups.

We first stopped at a lacquer factory, where the workers were victims or family members of victims of agent orange. As explained by our tour guide (his name I have forgotten, or did not hear right therefore did not register in my memory), agent orange was a chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We would be enlightened by the War Remnants Museum on the matter. Anyway, the factory showed how the lacquer was made, and it also had a gift shop. The process was impressive, and the products were amazing. It was just on the steep side and we did not buy anything. 😀

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how lacquer products were made 

 so many Tintin products!

bakya (clogs)

We then went straight to the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of tunnels used as hiding spots during combat during the Vietnam war, aiding them in communication, supply, care and other matters during that tumultuous time. We got off the bus, and proceeded to pay the entrance fee of VND90,000. To get to the Cu Chi tunnels part, we also had to walk through a tunnel, much bigger, pretty much like an underpass.

it was well-lighted, so no twilight zone moment 😀

Before we could proceed with the tour, we were first herded to an “underground bunker” (I can’t think of any other description) to watch a movie about the Cu Chi tunnels, and its role  during the Vietnam war. For all intents and purposes, it was a propaganda video, and attacked the Americans. Because we did very little background reading prior to the trip, we were initially confused as we thought that the Vietnamese welcomed the Americans during that time. We were further enlightened when we visited the War Remnants Museum, which will be featured later.

After the video, we proceeded with the tour, which entailed showing the tourists the various traps made by the Vietnamese, or other concealment devices, such as the hollow point in the ground, meant only for one person. I wanted to try it, but knew I would be trapped because of my small stature.

 it’s a trap!

it’s a tank!

The trail also showed artillery used during the war, figures showing what like was during that time, and featured a firing range, where you could fire an AK-47, M-16, carbine, M1, M30 or M60, buying only the bullets to be fired (minimum bullets: 10). We did not do this. I found it expensive (I’m a cheapskate, is it showing already?) While the other people in our group fired guns, we sat in the gift shoppe and had a snack of corn (VND15,000) and soda crackers. We were aching to go into the actual tunnels!

After about 20 minutes, we proceeded with the trail. We had to walk through a mini-juncgle throughout the whole Cu Chi tunnel tour. Trees everywhere, and the trail had a slight bump in the middle. After a short walk from the firing range, we reach the part of the tunnels open to the public for exploration. We were made to choose between 20m, 60m, 100m, and 120m, with those choosing the 20m going into the tunnel first. We chose 60m, which we figured was a good enough distance. We were right! The tunnel was hot, damp, dark, and small. I am 4’10 and I had to crouch most of the time. Definitely not for those suffering from claustrophobia!

cue twilight zone

It took a while before we got to the end. We waited for the other people of our group who opted for the 120m walk. They emerged from the tunnels all flushed and sweaty, but still in good spirits (ie, not vomiting or out of their wits), which was good. Our guide then gave us taro (kamoteng kahoy), which was used by the Vietnamese for their subsistence during that time. We were used to eating this crop, but not with sugar and peanuts, as the Vietnamese did. That ended our Cu Chi tunnels tour, this was around 1300hrs already.

The bus did not stop for lunch, instead we drove straight back to the city. I was asleep most of the time, but in the times I was awake, I noticed the style of the houses in Vietnam. Unlike in the Philippines, the doors of the houses always faced the road. This was amusing for me.

When we reached the city, we asked to be dropped off at the War Remnants Museum. We were dropped a few corners away, and that was the first time we experienced crossing the street, Vietnam style. The motorcycles made it very difficult, no one slowed down for anything! This caused fright among us, we hesitated, we couldn’t dance through the throng! We waited for other pedestrians to cross the street, as there was no regard for the pedestrian lane. Luckily, many locals were crossing the streets we also crossed, and there was even one time when a local offered to help us cross the street (even though he was not supposed to cross the street in the first place). To you, oh kind stranger, thank you.

whew!

This was also the first time we walked the streets of Saigon. O was amazed with the trees in the street! It made the city environment fresh and breezy, which is certainly lacking in our dear Manila.

After crossing 2 streets, we reach the War Remnants Museum. The entrance is VND15,000, opens at 0730hrs, closes at 1700hrs. The War Remnants Museum (sorry, I can’t find the official website, if any, of the museum) showcases exhibits culled from the American phase of the Vietnam War. It has 3 floors worth of exhibits,   showing what was used during that time, but more importantly, the effects of the war on the Vietnamese. An exhibit on the ground floor also showed the worldwide rage against the war. But for me, the exhibits on the second floor were the most striking. The exhibits recounted the effects of the war, the massacres that happened, and Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a type of chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam, killing crops, affecting the soil, and exposing thousands of Vietnamese to the deadly chemical. The effects to the agent were horrendous, I could not even recount them here, mainly because I cannot fully describe the physical state of the victims shown in the exhibit.

A block away from the museum was the Reunification Palace. (entranceL VND30,000 each) The Palace was known also as the Independence Palace. It was the home and workplace of the President of Southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the highlight of its history was when an army tank crashed through its gates.

 Reunification Palace

At this point of our trip, we were already so tired that we had to stop at the entrance first, catch our breath, and have a drink. The water in the vending machine was VND10,000 each, which is more expensive than when bought outside. However, we were left with no choice as the sun was just beating at us furiously and we were dehydrated. We entered the Palace from the side (primarily because we hugged the shade made by the trees), and so we got lost inside. We had to make our way to the front of the palace once we were inside, so we can avail of the free tour service.

one of the rooms inside.

view of the road from inside

a courtyard for the first family

the magnificent staircases

the notre dame cathedral

the post office

pho!

we were trapped here for more than 30 minutes…

fruit stand

goi cuon

ben thanh market