(Jan 2017) Taiwan Diary: 5 Days in Taipei & Alishan

Finally, I have some time to sum up my 5-day trip to Taiwan (10/01 – 14/01). Just came back to Hanoi several days earlier, I didn’t rest much and was super excited for this trip to Taiwan. This is the second trip that I’ve planned the whole thing, which is such an achievement for me. I start getting into travelling and it seems like this hobby will continue in the long term. My wish list is expanding day by day (sadly, my money isn’t). Anyway, unlike last trip to Hawaii, this time, I’ve got a companion. This was the first time I didn’t have to be alone while flying (except the Singapore trip in 2008 with my family, when I was really young). It felt different!

Let’s see what I’ve done for this trip.

A. Before the trip

– Thanks to the new visa policy in Taiwan, people who already got visa to go to some powerful countries (America, UK, Australia, Japan…) will get an exemption and only need to register online before the departure day (totally free) and bring the certificate to the airport. This was the exact reason why I decided to go to Taiwan. This certificate is valid for 30 days, whereas the normal visa for Vietnamese to go to Taiwan is valid for 15 days! Ironically, I printed all the bookings & Australian student visa and brought to the airport, but I totally forgot about this certificate and couldn’t even find it in my email. Thank God, my brother was at home and he helped me check my laptop. It was there! So stupid of me! Every plan had a mistake, that was my first lol. Other than that, everything else went off without a hitch!

This is how the certificate looks like.

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And there goes the online visa registration link. https://niaspeedy.immigration.gov.tw/nia_southeast/languageAction!showForm

– Book flight tickets: Of course, I went with the cheapest airline, which was Vietjet Air for me. I paid AUD $455 for the flight tickets for me and my friend (2 round-way tickets). Vietjet Airs offered the cheapest price for the route Hanoi – Taipei, comparing to Vietnam Airlines or Jetstar. The only bad thing about this flight was the timing – I arrived in Taipei at 6pm and reached my hostel around 8pm, which meant I didn’t have much time left for the day and couldn’t do much! Such a pity!

Cost: $455/2ppl + international transaction fee

– Book hostels: This is the cheap kind of accommodation, which is suitable for backpackers or travellers on a tight budget, or for anyone travelling to discover the world instead of having a relaxing vacation. Last time, I booked on the hostel’s website (Hawaii), but this time, I couldn’t read the website (in Chinese), so I booked via booking.com. For some reason, I always found better deals in this site comparing to hostelworld.com. Haven’t tried agoda.com, so I have no idea how it’s like, but I’m happy to stick with booking.com. As we would spend one day in Alishan, which is quite far away from Taipei, we booked one hostel at first and had to change in the last minutes, thus we booked another hostel as the other one ran out of room. So we spent 2 nights in Backpackers Inn Hostel & one night in Miniinn, both are in Taipei CBD. I was really impressed with the second one because of its location – it is super, super close to Taipei Main Station (M7 exit) – like 50m. I based on the following criteria to choose the hostels: (1) price, (2) hostel- Taipei CBD and MRT, (3) facility and (4) breakfast. I also paid more attention to hostels with higher review point and more reviews. It just looked more reliable to me (but it has to meet my requirement: cheap with nice room).

Cost: $69/2 nights/2 people at Backpackers Inn & $43/1 night/2 people at Miniinn. So it’s only $50/person for accommodation.

– Do research about public transportation in Taiwan. MRT is extremely convenient and easy to use, however, we would need to catch the bus to go to some specific places, so I was hesitant to choose between Taipei Pass (24h, 48h and 72h) and Easy Card ($100 non-refundable deposit). At last minutes, I found out Taipei Pass can’t be used for 4-digit buses, so I went with Easy Card for sure. You can use Easy Card to use MRT, TRA, HSRA, buses, even 7-11 and such. Arriving in Taipei, we went to the nearest train station (NTU Hospital station) to deposit NT$500 into each card (NT$100 = around AUD$4.25). On our last day in Taipei, we had to top up NT$90 into each card so that we had enough money to go to the airport. Yet we still had NT$19/each card left.

– While doing research, I saw a lot of mentions about Youth Travel Card (for students or young people under 30), but unfortunately, this card was no longer in use in Taiwan. Therefore, Next, please!

– Download and try out all Metro Taipei apps. It’s funny that I could use apps for MRT, but couldn’t use the one for buses because everything was in Chinese. I could understand Chinese a bit, but not the names and such.

B. 5 days in Taiwan

Day 1:

We touched Taiwan land 15 minutes earlier than expected, the custom procedure was quite simple, so everything was earlier than our plan, which was really a good start.

First thing first. We found a spot to buy a prepaid SIM card. Having already researched thoroughly about all the available prepaid cards (I like planning things out), I was looking for a ChungHwa Telecom’s SIM card – NT$300/5 days, but I didn’t see this store. Everything was in Chinese, there wasn’t English name in those 3 stores. Yet I found a cheaper deal: NT$250/5 days, unlimited data, NT$50 for texts and calls, provided by T-Star. “Star” must be good, lol, it was such an easy decision. Good start, everything was even better than my plan. Woot. First bargain!

After installing the SIM and everything, we went downstairs to find Information Center, so that we could activate iTaiwan – the free wifi system in Taiwan. You have to register online in advance, and show your passport when you reach the airport to receive the steps and formula of the wifi’s password. Don’t forget to take a picture of the instruction! The Information Center is located in the middle of the first floor, I think it is opposite to the bus counters. As I already bought the 4G SIM Card, I didn’t use wifi in Taiwan, but it was really helpful for my friend. We only purchased one SIM, mostly for Google Map use, my friend made the best use of iTaiwan (which was available in all train stations), or hostel’s wifi (which was superb).

The last thing we needed to do was to buy the bus tickets back to the city. A lot of reviews mentioned Bus 1819, but we found a cheaper one: Bus 1961, so we bought 2 tickets to get on board of this bus. The bus station was right there, you would need to go to Bus Station 10 (if my memory serves me right) and wait for the bus. The bus arrived shortly, it was very beautiful, modern, spacious, comfortable to sit. Especially, the luggages were put under the bus, so the passengers didn’t need to carry them up and down. It was very thoughtful of the bus providers. This ride cost NT$90/person, it took us around 45 – 50 minutes to get back to the city. After getting off, we walked around 10 minutes to reach the hostel. The weather was chilling and cool, which made me feel great.

After checking in and unpacking and rearranging a bit, we found our way to the nearest train station to catch the train to our first night market: Rao He Night Market. It is well known for its great variety of food. We heard about its reputation beforehand, so we tried quite a lot of food. Rumour has it the milk tea here wasn’t good, so we didn’t try any. It was really convenient that we travelled together, so we could order several different things and share.

First day: 7km of walking. It was normal for me, but it was quite tiring for my friend, who worked a desk job.

Day 2:

On the second day, we went to Jiu Fen Old Street, National Palace Museum, Ximending, Shilin Night Market. Due to the rainy weather, we crossed out Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall.

To get to Jiufen, we took the MRT on the green light to Songshan Station, took exit 4 and walked 50m to Songshan station to catch bus 1062 (Quan Ji Tang). It seemed like the seats on the left were the best seats on the bus because you could enjoy the view of the mountain surrounded by the clouds out of the windows (unfortunately, it was raining that day, so we couldn’t take proper pictures). We got off the bus one stop earlier than we were supposed to. The place we got off was actually only 100m far away from Jiufen Village, but because of the rain and stupid Google Map, we couldn’t find the right direction. Luckily, Taiwanese people are so friendly and helpful, whether they speak English or not. We asked one old man on the bus station, we were just about to speak English to him and he told us “I don’t understand, just show me your destination, I will show you the way” (in Chinese lol). He showed us the direction in Chinese, thankfully I knew some Chinese so it wasn’t too difficult to understand. He asked where we were from, we said we’re from Vietnam, he smiled at us and wished us luck. Very polite and friendly.

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The entrance to get inside Jiufen Old Street was right next to 7-11. There wasn’t any entrance fee to visit. We wandered around Jiufen until around 1 – 2pm, tried some Jiufen typical food (Taro balls, Taiwanese meatball, ice cream wrap, pearl milk tea, etc), then left for National Palace Museum. We tried to avoid talking to the taxi drivers, but they approached us and instead of talking us into taking their service, they instructed us how to walk to the bus station. Forever grateful! I love Taiwanese people and their friendly manners!

We caught bus 1062 to get back to the city, got off at Zhongxiao Fuxing Station, caught MRT (brown line) to Dazhi Station, took Exit 3 and walked to Dazhi Bus Station to catch bus BR13 Da Lun Wei Shan to reach National Palace Museum. What a journey! It was so difficult to find Dazhi Bus Station, even though Google Map said it’s only 150m away. If you take the bus, don’t forget to check the direction of the buses before boarding. Even when we reached the right station, we didn’t see bus BR13, only the bus named 13 along with a Chinese character. We asked a random woman on street, she showed us the bus and even signalled the bus driver to stop for us. Hehe. Just like in Sydney, when you take buses in Taiwan, you also need to use Google Map or any app to know where you are at because not every bus has the informing system. When we got off the bus, we walked further away from the National Palace Museum accidentally and the bus driver called us back and pointed at the right direction. It’s so nice of him!

The entrance fee for this museum was NT$250/person. Though to be honest, I reckon that only the outside gate was worth a visit (and of course, it was free). It looked just like in the Chinese ancient series. The actual museum was quite boring for my taste, therefore we spent only one hour inside and got out. Free English tour guide is available (2 times/day), but you need to register 5 – 7 days beforehand, as there are only 30 spots each tour. I actually planned to register, but only remembered 2 days before my trip, so of course I missed it. Hurry up if you want to do this, otherwise you won’t find any interesting thing there!

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We caught Bus 304 back to Ximending. We saw MRT Shilin Station on the way, so we played it by ears and went to Shilin Night Market first. It was only 6PM & I was afraid it was a bit too early for a night market. It seemed to me that this market wasn’t as focused as Raohe market, the food stalls and cloth stalls weren’t located separately. We didn’t see any food that we really liked and we were too hungry, we randomly chose a small restaurant near the entrance of Shilin Market, it turned out really nice haha. Too bad the menu was all written in Chinese without any picture, so that we had some difficulty in picking out our dinner. Thankfully, there were some pictures on the banner in front of the restaurant, so I matched names with pictures and figured it out. We ordered something that was NT$140, but it was big enough for 2 people to share. It was cheaper (in value) and we felt really full comparing to eating stuff outside in the market. They offered free soft drink, free soup/congee (self-served, unlimited) and one piece of bread. As we couldn’t read Chinese, we couldn’t help wondering if it was really free, it was simply too good to be true, so I texted 3 friends who knew/spoke Chinese to help. At the end, the receipt said NT$140, we were really, really happy. Such a big meal for a really cheap price!!! Nice pick!

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We ended our day by visiting Ximending. From Shilin Night Market, we walked to MRT Jiantan Station, caught bus 310 and got off at Zhonghualubei Station. Ximending was like Taiwan CBD. It was much more crowded and more beautiful than other places, esp. at night. There were a lot of stores here, both world-wide brands and local brands. Generally, everything looked really fancy, but we managed to buy some shoes and clothes at really good prices. Ximending is definitely the place for shopping. Made-in-Taiwan shoes seem nice and cheap, clothes are very girl – Asian style, though most of them are in big sizes, which are suitable for tall people. Too bad for me!

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At the end of the day, we walked 11.5km each.

Day 3:

As we would go out for the whole day and the check-out time at the hostel was 12PM, we checked out first thing in the morning and left our luggage there.

Our plan for the day was to go to: Beitou Hot Spring, Thermal Valley, Tamsui Old Street, Taipei 101 (but we forgot to book Starbucks the day before so we skipped that.)

From NTU Hospital Station, we caught MRT in the red line to Beitou, then changed to pink line to Xinbeitou. I don’t recommend visiting Hot Spring Museum because there wasn’t much too see. We made a mistake when we went inside. We went out after 15 minutes lol, heading to Thermal Valley. Excellent place. I thought I was in fairy tale land. I wish it was sunny that day so that we could take much better pictures.

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After Thermal Valley, we walked back to Millennium Hot Springs to use the public hot spring baths there. There was an auto machine outside of the house, you would need to buy tickets there first (NT$40/person). Most of people going here were elderly, there were 4 different pools at 4 temperature levels. After getting out of the pool, you can take a shower with cold water (free) and hot water (NT$10 or NT$20 – 4 minutes). By the way, mind you, if you wear silver rings/bracelets with you when dipping you into the pool. For some reasons, those silver things turned into a darker colour and didn’t go back to normal. Was there any chemistry theory for that?

At almost 2PM, we reached Tamsui Station via the pink line to Beitou and red line to Tamsui. I love using MRT in Taiwan, there was no need to use Google Map, everything was really transparent and easy to use, although it was a little bit more expensive than buses.

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Tamsui must be more beautiful on sunny days than rainy days, unfortunately, we went there on a very cloudy day, so we just enjoyed our time. It seemed to be a place for people to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, I love jogging along the coastline. I originally planned to go to Lover’s Bridge, which was close to Fisherman’s Wharf. The pictures looked so good. More importantly, that bridge was the location they filmed a dating scene in my favourite Taiwanese dramas named It started with a kiss. The couple walked on that bridge, so I really wanted to do the same thing and experienced that special feeling. Hello, any fangirl out there, you must understand that feeling lol. Well, until next time!

We moved our luggage from Backpackers Inn to Miniin Hostel, which was super close to Taipei Main Station – even though our booking was for the following day. The staff was so kind and let us leave our stuff there before checking in.

We walked to Taipei Bus Station to buy the tickets to Taichung. This is funny: Don’t fully trust Google Map! Google Map got everything wrong: the departure time, ticket price as well as the duration from Taipei to Taichung. Real life was better. We bought 2 tickets of Ubus (the green buses). The ticket was NT$170/each, leaving at 2AM, the duration was around 2.5 – 3 hours (whereas Google showed us 4 – 5 hours at a higher price).

We walked back to the Food Court and had dinner at 9h30. We both were starving. It turned out that the Food Court closed at 10PM and we happened to be the very last customers that night. All the elevators and lifts stopped working lol. Luckily, the waitor that we asked called a security guy to “rescue” us lol.

We jump to the conclusion that night market is only good for street food, but street food can’t make you full. I prefer eating in the food court – the portion is big enough to share, including everything: rice, meat, vegetable (typical Asian meal). Probably that night was the first time we had vegetable during our trip in Taiwan.

Day 4:

We spent the whole day to get to Alishan and get back to Taipei at midnight. There was more than once I wanted to book one-day tour to Alishan, but then I preferred planning and discovering things on my own, so eventually, I did all by myself.

There goes our journey! It was such a tiring day!

Taipei – Alishan route: Taipei – Taichung (NT$170/person – by bus); Taichung – Chiayi Station (NT$165/person – by bus); Chiayi Station – Fenqihu (NT$384/person – by red train); Fenqihu – Alishan (NT$200/person – by coach).

Alishan – Taipei route: Alishan – Chiayi Station (NT$260/person – by bus, I actually dont remember precisely); Chiayi Station – Taipei (NT$598/person, by train)

The entrance fee in Alishan was NT$300/2 people. They charged us at student price lol.

We reached Taichung at 4.30AM, it was way too early comparing to my original plan. Thankfully, it was quite easy to find the way to Taichung Station. The bus from Chiayi to Fenqihu departed at 6AM and arrived at almost 8AM. As for the railway train from Chiayi Station to Fenqihu only had limited seats and run once per day, I had to book the tickets in advance. We went to the counter and claimed the tickets after showing my passport. Everything went off without a hitch, even though people here don’t seem to speak as good English as people in Taipei!

For some reason, I slept most of the time after boarding. But my travelling partner said that the sightseeing wasn’t worth it. At least it was something special offered by Chiayi-Fenqihu and we got to experience that. But if you don’t have the time and want to save money, energy, you also can catch the direct bus from Taipei to Chiayi, and from Chiayi to Alishan.

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It was around 11.20AM when we reached Fenqihu. The next bus to Alishan would leave at 12:50PM, so we had time for lunch. We bought one Bento lunch box to eat in the station, and another one for take-away. Fenqihu is well-known with Bento Box – the Japanese style lunch box. It has rice, meat and several types of vegetables. The store right next to Fenqihu Station was more expensive than the next one we found, (but it was too late when we found the next one, oops). It was cheaper to take away, and they would give you a paper cup to drink free Oolong tea. I love those complementary things in Taiwan.

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After having lunch, we walked to the bus station and were greeted by an old man who tried to convince us to get on his mini coach. There were around 8 – 10 people there and they were about to leave for Alishan. The old man didn’t speak English so other people helped us translate lol. I understood what he said but didn’t want to use Chinese, just in case he responded in a lengthy answer in Chinese and I didn’t understand, that would be embarassing. Because of the timing, we decided to hop on this coach to save time. NT$200/person, 45 minutes. Thanks to the local driver, we bought the entrance tickets at the discounted price for students lol, without showing International Student Identity Card. Woot. Win-win situation!

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Unfortunately, when we reached Alishan, it wasn’t as sunny as in the morning, it was cloudy and chilly a bit, the sky was grey and all. We managed to visit half of 8 wonders in Alishan without taking any train. We took a bunch of pictures, which will be posted later. We needed to get back to the gate before 5.10PM for the very last bus to Chiayi Station. We got back to Chiayi Station at 7PM and waited until 8:36PM for the Tze-Chiang Limited Express to Taipei.

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Sisters Pond

We got back to Taipei around 0:30AM the next morning and came back to the new hostel. This hotel was even better and more beautiful than the previous one. Woot. We slept in and had a full breakfast before getting out the next morning. Miniinn offered buffet for breakfast, with spaghetti & mushroom sauce, eggs, breads, fruits,… lemon iced tea, green tea and freshly squeezed orange. It was so good.

Day 5:

We were supposed to visit Yehliu Geography Park in the morning, but it was a rainy day (again, huhu), and we were pretty tired from the previous day, so we skipped that one. If I ever come back to Taiwan again, visiting Yehliu will definitely be on my list. We went to Carrierfour, which provided a wide range of goods, you could get everything from there to bring back as gifts. The prices are very similar to the other stores that we had checked out, sometimes even cheaper. I got Assam Black Tea there (hopefully, I could make good Assam Black Tea like Easy Way), my friend got fruits and pineapple cakes.

After having lunch in Taipei Bus Station’s Food Court (yes, again), we came back to the hostel to repack things a bit and caught the bus to the airport (bus 1961, again). There goes my short vacation! I had a lot of fun, a lot of new experiences and good memories. Taiwanese are so friendly, helpful and they are always willing to stop by to see if we need help. The public transportation is much, much better than in Hanoi. There are fewer seats on MRT and buses as opposed to those in Sydney though. Most of the things are more expensive than in Hanoi (of course) – unless you get a really good bargain, but is much, much cheaper than in Sydney. Woot!!!! Highly recommend. Taiwan will be my number one Asian city in my heart now.

We spent roughly 10 millions VND/person (AUD$500 – $600) for EVERYTHING (5 days). We spent quite a lot on the short trip to Alishan, but as we took the night bus, we didn’t have to pay for accommodation for that night. We used MRT & buses all the time, so taxi wasn’t necessary. We tried out a lot of food but didn’t spend much on drinks (such a pity!). Overall, it was a cheap vacation and we enjoyed every moment of this Taiwan trip.

This brings me to the end of this diary. I will update Taiwanese food & all the trains I’ve booked soon. Thanks for reading (if you’re still here)!

– LuckyStar Pham aka Catherine Pham –

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