Monday, November 23, 2015

The Return to Taipei: Fooooooood

I was long overdue for seeing my girlfriend in VN, so we agreed to meet for a 3-day weekend in Taipei, roughly halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Seoul. I had greatly enjoyed my first visit to Taipei for a wedding in 2013 and I was eager to return.

Xiao Long Bao time
Much like my return to Hong Kong, Taipei’s charm and allure faded a little for me on the 2nd visit, but I still consider it a highly appealing and overlooked travel destination — a “diamond in the rough”. Some facts about Taipei that became more apparent on Trip #2: there isn’t a lot to do besides eating delicious food all the time; it is very Chinese, though certainly far more civil and refined than the mainland; there aren’t many tourists besides those from mainland China.

To coordinate flight schedules my girlfriend and I both scheduled strange overnight itineraries: I landed at about 3:30am on Saturday morning from a flight eventually bound for Singapore, and my girlfriend landed at about 5:15am. At about sunrise we were heading on a bus into the city.

We put our bags down at our boutique hotel in the Ximending district and took a walk around to look for breakfast. Fortunately there was a “Breakfast Street” nearby … perfect! At 7:30am people were starting to queue for sticky buns and street dumplings and other foods. We found a food counter with a little bit of seating. I grabbed a wrap of pork surrounded by sticky rice … almost like a breakfast burrito. It filled me up. By the time we were finished a long queue of locals had appeared at the food counter, which certainly justified our decision to eat there.

I touched the top of Taipei 101!  (well, not exactly...)
After coffee, which was actually rather difficult to find, we jumped onto the Metro for early brunch at the original Din Tai Fung restaurant on Xinyi Road near Dongmen Station. At 10am the restaurant was already starting to fill up, it seemed largely with tourists judging my the number of cameras taking pictures of food! We ordered several sets of xiao long bao still steaming in bamboo pots when they arrive at your table. Our favorite was the shrimp with fish roe xiao long bao — the shrimp was so fresh! By the time we finished at 11:30 there was another long queue outside the Din Tai Fung … maybe an hour’s wait for a table … I am glad that we arrived early!

We next checked off the Taipei 101 box by staring up at the tower and taking photos. We didn’t feel the need to ascend … it’s a beautiful building and the only thing you won’t be able to see from the observatory at the top is the tower itself! Plus the entrance fee, about US$15, we deemed too high. The mall below feels quite luxurious and is worth walking around.

Next the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, a big building dedicated to what seems like an important guy, but most of the exhibits were written in Chinese only so its pretty indecipherable. There is an entrance with a big statue of the man guarded by armed soldiers, and the hourly changing of the guard ceremony drew a big crowd. By this point, lack of sleep caught up with us and my girlfriend could barely walk in her high-heels, so we napped at the hotel before going out for a delicious all-you-can-eat hot pot buffet at Mala Hotpot by Zhongshan Station. Though right on top of the station it was a little difficult to find, but quite filling and enjoyable — the certified Angus beef here was superb!

Falling in love with conveyor belt sushi!
When we returned to Ximending in the evening my girlfriend was surprised to see how the pedestrian area had come alive with shops and street vendors and crowds of young people. She thought it was similar to Myeongdong in Seoul, but I agree with the prevailing sentiment that it is more like Harajuku in Tokyo. The area definitely has a Japanese vibe with anime characters plastered on billboards and punk teens walking the streets.

On Sunday morning we got a much-needed late start with lunch at a Sushi Express restaurant near our hotel. Conveyor belt sushi! Fresh and wonderful and a great value! We found some milk bubble tea from one of the many stands and wandering Ximending in search of swimwear for my girlfriend … not the easiest thing to find! We finally found a bright orange bikini and my girlfriend was able to use fingers to negotiate the merchant down a little on the price. Then, we were on the Metro north to the hot spring district of Xin Beitou.

I chose for us to visit the Millennium Hot Spring, a public facility which opens for 2-hour shifts and attracts many Taiwanese senior citizens on a Sunday afternoon. It was crowded and had makeshift changing facilities, but eventually we found our way into one of the cauldrons of hot water. Ow ow ow ow ow! I think I saw a sign that said the water temperature was 43C. It was an endurance challenge to submerge one’s body from the neck down for more than a couple minutes. But once you get out of the water… ohhhhh, it’s so relaxing! We dipped ourselves in the water a couple times before the shift ended and the elderly masters of the facilities shooed us out before the beginning of the next shift.

On our walk back to the Metro station we searched in vain for some bubble tea — it is not as ubiquitous in Taipei as I would have expected — and then took a Metro ride to the Shilin Night Market, which seemed to have opened a little earlier (around 6pm) on a Sunday. This was dinner time… we tried street dumplings and street fried squid and street sausage. So many other foods we could have tried but skipped. The whole place was mobbed with people shopping, eating, or just out for a walk.

Monday morning was another sleeping-in day before a big lunch at Chao Pin Ji Cantonese dim sum restaurant in the San Want hotel by the Zhongxiao Dunhua station. Also some really delicious shrimp dumplings here as well. The atmosphere was more formal than Din Tai Fung but isn’t mobbed with tourists, and certainly the food was of similar quality. The time flew by on Monday, as it always does on days when my girlfriend and I are separating yet again. Before we knew it, we were at the airport eating pork at the cafeteria food court and saying our goodbyes…

No comments:

Post a Comment