If there is one place you want to be to celebrate the new year in Asia, it is definitely Taipei. Who has never seen the famous Taipei 101, the mighty skyscraper depicting Taiwan's capital city, light up with fireworks when the countdown gets to zero? On my first NYE since my relocation to Asia, and no plans to fly back home this year, I had to fly to Taipei and join #party101 celebration!
The Good Samaritan
After a short three-hour flight from HCMC, Anita and I landed in Taipei and embarked on a scavenger hunt to our hotel. Conveniently, the Taoyuen International Airport - located about an hour away from downtown Taipei - is connected with a train. A quick Google Maps search told us the way to The Fame Boutique Hotel. Thirty minutes on a train, ten minutes walking, thirty minutes waiting in a freezing cold misty weather, and a last twenty-minute stretch by bus brought us to what we thought was the right location of our hotel. After all, why would it not be? It is Google Maps after all! The only flaw in this logic was that we assumed the hotel had registered the right address online. Murphy's Law strikes again! It's now 10:30pm and we were just dropped in the middle of nowhere with neither cellphone data nor wifi nearby to connect to. After a few unsuccessful attempts of asking people around, we just decided to walk. On our path, we crossed a car dealership that was still open. We went in and asked the first person we saw to help us find the correct address. Based on the look in her eyes when we approached her, that person didn't speak one word of English, so she called her colleague in the office to speak with us instead. Not only this person called the hotel to figure out the right address, but he also offered to drive us there. How convenient was it to have knocked at a car dealership's door. After all, car dealerships always have cars at their disposal, don't they? Anita rightfully admitted later that she would have never gone in a stranger’s car if she was not travelling with me.
The Fame Boutique Hotel
During the drive, our Good Samaritan mentioned the hotel staff was aware of their address being wrong on Google Maps. That alone announced the colors of our stay in the hotel that should have been named The Shame Hotel. After a 15-minute ride on the highway that would have easily taken us an hour more by public transportation, we still drove in circles for an extra 10 minutes trying to find the address. We finally reached it with the pseudo-assistance of the hotel receptionist on the phone who couldn’t care less about our situation. While getting out of the car, we thanked our savior and asked for his name. His Chinese name was a bit too challenging to decode that late in the evening. Although, it did sound something like "Far Away". You bet ya!
At the reception, I tried cracking a joke about the difficulties we had finding their hotel, but the receptionist was as clueless as a pirate with two eye patches. With her rusty plastic perm that looked like she was wearing a motorbike helmet, and her flashy fingernails, she handed over the room key and sent us with the clerk to set up our room. A funky smell floating in the air would have been enough to request another room, but in fact, I think we might have just gotten cat-fished! It’s not that the room didn’t look like the photos advertised on the hotels.com website… it’s just that it looked much, oh but so much nicer on the website. It’s almost as if the photograph used the BeautyPlus app to enhance their looks. The room was somehow recognizable and yet, it felt like we were on the wrong date. Let’s just say it was nicely staged.
The clerk tip-tapped on the air conditioning terminal like she was enabling a Konami Code. Up, up, down, down, left, left, right, right, “B”, “A”. I thought she was going to flip the whole room to what it was meant to look like in the first place. In reality, she was just fake-trying to fix the heating system only to look surprised that it was out of order. She knew damn well that the “Sorry, not working.”, she said, and left the room… like I’m buying that. As soon as the door clapped, we looked around and analyzed the situation further. The tacky glittery furniture was enough to make me go back to the reception and ask why our room looks nothing like the one we booked online… let alone the horrifying wallpaper above the head bed that featured a bunch of cartoon dolphins. While I still wondered why the word “boutique” was mentioned in the name of this establishment (as they sold literally nothing), I still managed to switch us to a slightly less deplorable room. I mean, the room was as hideous, but at least the smell was not as intense. Although, we still did not have heating in the room.
Since the booking was non-refundable, we have contemplated the idea of kissing our money goodbye and booking another hotel. But then again, it was New Year’s and most decent hotels were out of price, if not already fully booked. We had no choice but to suck it up for the next four nights. As you can imagine, we did survive while spending the least amount of time in this shit hole. At the end of our stay, just when we thought the poor customer service in this establishment could not be pushed further, two more events happened. Not only the bed was not made and shower towels not replaced, but the receptionist called us at 11:40am to tell us it was check-out time (real check out time was at 12:00pm). If only they were as thorough with the tidiness of their rooms.
SO FRESH AND SO CLEAN
On the way out of the hotel, we stopped every morning at Comebuy, a counter from a local milk tea chain. The distance between the hotel and the nearest MRT station was just long enough to enjoy a hot bubble tea on a fresh and misty morning. We had to finish it before passing the turnstile, as drinking and eating is prohibited on the wagon. Taipei is one of those cities that can only reach such level of cleanliness with the discipline of their citizens. The city defines the rules and the citizens abide. A lot of elements that contributed to the cleanliness and the general well-functioning of the city would not work anywhere else but, for some reason, they did there.
No littering. You won’t find any litter on the ground despite the very few amount of public garbage disposals on the sidewalk. People just hold on to their rubbish until they find a proper garbage can. A little personal discomfort for the greater benefit of the community.
No garbage on the side of the road. The merchants don’t bring their garbage out on the side of the road on pick-up day. They rather keep them in until it’s pick up time. Then and only then, to the sound of the beautiful music announcing the arrival of the garbage truck, the merchants bring their garbage bags out and place them themselves in the truck.
No noise. The city also makes a lot of efforts in making the urban experience the most pleasant. For example, the sound that announces the arrival of the next MRT train is also a relaxing song that resembles the one a parent would use to put their toddler to bed. Even the people are behaving in public spaces. You won’t hear anyone raising their voices, even in a conversation. People will tone it down not to bother their fellow citizens. At Smiths&Hsu, a tea house we went to meet with my old friend Naomi, it was so silent that we could hear pages from the menu turning. It did add to the coziness of this tea house. That plus a hot tea kettle and some homemade scones served with butter and honey… how can someone be stressed?
No honking. In contrast with my new home, Ho Chi Minh City, where drivers use their horn as the Vietnamese version of a braking pedal, Taipei is almost sound free. You won’t here anyone honk! Whether it’s a simple personal driver or a taxi driver trying to catch the eye of a potential client, the rule applies exactly the same way for everyone.
No drinking or eating. As just mentioned, food is not allowed on the MRT, which makes it so clean that I could literally eat off its floor. I mean… if it was permitted!
Respect others. For the first time since I left Germany have I seen people stand on the right side of the escalator to make way to the ones in a hurry. I have also seen free-of-use community umbrella dispensers where it’s the responsibility of the user to bring it back when finished for someone else to enjoy. This is a clear example of service concept that would not function in certain countries. Also, as soon as a pedestrian sets foot on the street, all vehicles will stop to let them cross the street. This contrasts once again with the HCMC way of driving that simply drives around the pedestrian without slowing down. The scary part is that the Saigonese also do that with cars, not only motorbikes.
ALWAYS MORE DELIGHTS
“Taipei, always more delights!” is the slogan from the capital city’s tourism campaign. For having spent five full days in the city, it is indeed true that Taipei has always more to offer, especially when it comes to food. Taipei is a true open kitchen. From its fine dining restaurants to its countless street food night markets, you will find food everywhere you go and at every time of the day. I dare anyone visiting Taipei to resist to its delightful food stalls. It’s is impossible! Everything we crossed looked delicious, and we were the first ones to cave at several occasions. But, then again, how could we even think of resisting? Truly, we are victims in this whole story!
Din Tai Fung. This is the go-to place if you want to eat quality handmade xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings). This restaurant chain is well reputed and known all across Asia. In fact, there are even three branches in Ho Chi Minh City. But, since the chain is originally from Taiwan, we had to try it while visiting. We woke up quite late and thought to keep the intermittent fasting until we brunched with as many dumplings we could stuff our tummies with. When we finally got to the restaurant, we were attributed a number and were told the waiting time was of 65 minutes. No way we could wait this long, so we immediately went to a food court across the street and shared a large bowl of spicy beef noodles. Just enough to warm up our stomach before getting to the real stuff. Good news was that we could look at the menu from outside the restaurant and already note the dish numbers we wanted to order before even sitting. The whole order came quite quickly, and so began a feast that would very quickly put us into food coma.
Raohe Street Night Market. This is the first night market we visited, and it also happened to be our favorite. The offering of street food compared to clothing and other products was much better than other markets we have visited. Although we made a few purchases during our stay, we were mostly in for the food rather than the clothes. Quail egg balls, egg tarts, fried chicken… you name it! We tried it all! From the Raohe Street Night Market, we can walk to the Yongshun Market for clothing, and then to Hulin Market for local grocery shopping. Walk a bit further and find the accordion-looking apartment building, and the mighty Taipei 101. All of these locations are adjacent to each other, which made it interesting to discover the city by foot.
Shin Yeh. About a month before our trip, Anita proposed we booked a table at a restaurant on the 86th floor of the Taipei 101 building. The restaurant called Shin Yeh offers once-forgotten home-cooked Taiwanese dishes revived and recreated in a unique style. They have chosen from over hundreds of popular Taiwanese dishes to furnish its local menu with the finest from Taiwan’s rich gastronomic heritage. For our experience, we were asked if we’d prefer to book a table with or without a view (meaning, in the middle of the dining area or by a window). Since the restaurant is an open area anyway, we thought we would not benefit much from paying almost twice the price just to enjoy a view. Besides, at this time of the year, it gets pretty misty in Taipei. Especially on the 86th floor, chances were we would be in a cloud anyway. Turns out we guessed well, as the only view we could enjoy was a thick white cloud that couldn’t seem to disperse for the duration of the service. We were told most fancy restaurants in Taipei operate under two services (5:30pm or 8:00pm). We chose the 5:30pm service so we could go join the #party101 - at the foot of the skyscraper - with enough time ahead to enjoy the live music before the countdown to midnight.
Shihlin Night Market. This is one of the largest, most popular night markets in Taiwan with regard to food, and also one of the most popular points of Taipei's night life among visitors. Located in Taipei’s Shilin District, a mere 70 meters from MRT Jiantan Station. After a small hike in Jiantan Park and a quick visit in the Grand Hotel Taipei lobby, we walked the side streets of the nearby neighborhood in search of a restaurant to break bread. Tough luck, most merchants were closed on New Year’s Day. Besides, with the nearby street market, it was very difficult to find any restaurant. We still managed to find a corner joint that sold baked buns stuffed with cabbage. It was delicious and also very cheap (Only 12 TWD for one piece). We reached the night market a bit too early and had to wait an extra half-hour before the Japense ramen noodle joint we had our eye on finally accepted customers. Anita went for the pork ramen noodle soup with soft boiled egg. For my part, I chose the chicken-based ramen noodle soup served with chicken drumstick and soft boiled egg. The menu mentioned that this dish was only served on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they only prepared 25 servings per day. I had to try it, and with reason as it was so tasty. After trying my dish, Anita regretted choosing hers as she was not so thrilled about it. After our meal, we directly went to get lost in the Night Market and didn’t leave the area until midnight. We just went from one backstreet to the next, entered all fashion shops, tried a few street food stalls, and tried figuring out how a few of the games of skills worked. I was never a fan of those games where you can win a teddy bear if you are skilled enough, probably because it was my first summer job back when I was 15 years old. But, I do enjoy looking at people failing time after time while their ego gets in the way.
Hawker Chan. Remember that time in Singapore when Anita and I waited like 20 minutes for our order at the counter because we didn’t know it was our number being called? Turns out Taipei also has a branch of the same Hong Kong-style soy sauce chicken joint. Since it’s the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, there was one more reason to try it again, besides the fact that we messed up the first time. We placed exactly the same order as in Singapore (one soy sauce chicken with rice, and one soy sauce chicken with noodles). Only this time, when we were given our receipt, the cashier did take the time to point out our number to us. Therefore, no confusion was even remotely possible and we were served our order within minutes. As expected, it was hot and delicious!
Drip Cafe. Our last stop before heading to the airport was at Drip Cafe. We stumbled upon its beautiful and hip-looking wooden entrance. We thought we could use a cozy cup of coffee. Turns out we went for a step closer to diabetes. The snacks are amazingly prepared and presented, but oh so sweet! Same goes for the coffee. We ordered two Drip coffees, a strawberry croissant donut, and a bubble tea mint croissant donut. It was so much sugar at once that it once again plunged us into food coma, which is not so back before a three-hour flight. Luckily, they messed up the order and forgot the second Drip coffee. After tasting all of this sugar, I was very happy to switch it to a regular Americano (no sugar, please).
Sketchy Midnight Spa
Jeffrey, one of my counterparts at Taiwanese supplier based in Vietnam, happens to be from Taipei. He was visiting his family over the same week to celebrate the new year. He was nice enough to offer to drive us around the outskirts of Taipei and see another side to the green island. We met up at a bar nearby Taipei 101, where Anita and I were enjoying drinks after shopping. Jeffrey showed up with his girlfriend, and proposed us to drive to a spa resort about an hour driving from the bar. “A spa?”, we said. Not that it was not a good idea, but it was 11:00pm and none of us had our swimsuits with us. Jeffrey explained that people in Taiwan go to the spa naked. Now, he got me worried! Were we caught in some sort of swingers’ conversation? He then added that it is possible to book a private room to enjoy the spa session away from the eyes of strangers. Now, that sounded more like it! “Let’s do it!”, I said. So, we drove to the spa resort and booked two private rooms. Once again, the photos behind the counter showed one version, but when they brought us to the actual rooms it was something completely different. The spa was nothing more than a square room with a large bath in it and no windows. We had to change in the humid room, which made our clothes damp and we all know how harmful this could be to our phones. It then took 30 minutes to fill the bath tub, and the remaining thirty to bathe. I think we would have had a better experience in our crappy hotel. While we wondered why Jeffrey proposed to drive us an hour away from the city to have such a basic experience, I remembered that Jeffrey lives in Vietnam and his girlfriend in Taipei with her family. It then hit me that Jeffrey probably had another plan in mind: make the most of his time with his girlfriend (if you know what I mean).
Jiufen gold town
The next day, Jeffrey offered to come pick us up with his car and drive us to Jiufen, a decommissioned gold mining mountain town, originally built by the Japanese and now a maze of lanes and alleyways with rich history and culture. Despite the bad weather, we still decided to go visit the town under a pouring sky. On the way to the town, Anita asked Jeffrey why the town was nicknamed “Gold Town”. In a very condescending way, he answered it’s because when the sun rises, the sun rays reflect on the roof tiles and make the town look gold. Although this was a very poetic answer, I knew it wasn’t true. In fact, as soon as we arrived, the art pieces along the road made it obvious that the town was an ancient gold mining village, hence its nickname. Working with Jeffrey, I had already experienced these types of unfounded comments. This time was a bit funnier, because we could call him out on the spot. We spent the next four hours walking into the maze trying different street foods, and avoiding an army of umbrellas banging against our heads every minute.
According to Jeffrey, #party101 would not be the such a “happening”, as advertised on social media. He said, the New Year’s fireworks at Taipei 101 are a long-time overdue tradition which was exciting at the beginning but, nowadays, no one bothers to go anymore. Another classic comment signed Jeffrey. Right after our meal at Shin Yeh, we found a 7-Eleven, bought 500ml of whiskey and two Coca-Cola bottles. We empties half of each Coca-Cola bottle and topped them up with the whiskey (‘cause, that’s how we roll!). We walked to the venue, only to find a sea of people, probably in the hundred thousand ballpark. We squeezed ourselves in the crowd to enjoy a great music lineup featuring some of the most famous Taiwanese and Asian artists (Ben Wu, R-Chord, #GBOYSWAG, Xiao Bing Chih, DJ Cookie, Dream Walker, Rueibin Chen, Anna, Amei, EXID, MJ116, etc.) while waiting for the long-waited countdown and fireworks. As expected, the firework show was majestic. If you ever think of attending #party101, make sure you empty your bladder before making it to the show, as you will be stuck there for the next three hours without possibility to move one inch. Agoraphobics, avoid at all cost. After wishing each other a Happy New Year, we stayed and enjoyed more music for the next hour before heading back to the hotel. We then had two choices. Either wait in line for hours in the never-ending queue to the nearest MRT station, or walk to the previous station and enter directly. We chose the latter and even ensured to beat the crowd to a seat. Two birds, one stone!
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
On our last day, we checked out at 12:00pm on the dot despite the receptionist pressuring us to leave at 11:40pm. We then took the MRT to the Taipei Main Station, left our luggage in a public locker and wandered around for the next three hours before heading to the airport. If you have learned anything in this post about Taipei, you know that wandering around the city without any plans is a dangerous business. It will definitely lead up to eating excessively, and it’s precisely what happened. There is just so much food everywhere, and it all looked delicious. As mentioned earlier, we truly are victims in this whole story!
After stuffing our faces, we went on a twenty-minute walk to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall to catch the changing of the guards. We went through the impressive gate at the entrance, walked passed the two monuments and walked up the stairs of the hall at the other end of the site. A very slow-paced changing of the guards went on for the next half-hour. That involved five guards doing slow motion marching movements with a bayonet in their hands. It was more of a show than anything else, as many people gathered around to get a video of the demonstration. It was quite impressive, but for having practiced such movements back in my years with the Royal Canadian Army Cadets, I had seen enough after five minutes and Anita is kind of an ADD for those things. The woman can’t stand still while watching a movie! We then left to the MRT to get our luggage back and ride to the airport.
Despite the cold and rainy weather, my impression about Taipei is more than positive. I cannot wait to be back in a warmer time of the year to experiment more of the city’s delights. We are still yet to spend a day in a proper hot spring resort, more night markets (e.g. Ningxia), and admire the city’s skyline from Xiangshan (Elephant Mountain). We are also yet to find the mysterious side-street with a view on Taipei 101, which we unsuccessfully hunted through our stay. Whether it’s for its original architectural design concepts, a shopping spree, fine food dining, street food experimenting, or its culture, art and folk, we will be back with our EasyCard ready to take on the city on a next adventure!