6 Tips To Remember Before Your Next Trip To Taiwan
What you need to know when it comes to cultural etiquette, getting around, and of course… the incredible food.
Taiwan is one of the most beautiful, friendly, and tasty places in the world. I had never thought about travelling there… until my brother fell in love with a Taiwanese girl. In a flash, my family and I flew to Taipei and my brother married the girl of his dreams, thus giving me a legitimate reason to finally take the plunge and visit an Eastern country... and it was far more than I bargained for. In the blink of an eye, I was back on my flight home, transformed by the incredible experience, already dreaming of my next trip back.
Before I left for Taiwan, I studied the culture in depth and asked my soon-to-be sister-in-law every question possible. I was prepared - but not for everything. Here are 6 tips to remember before your next trip to Taiwan:
1. Get yourself a pocket wifi
If you’re not planning on staying for months (in that case, get a sim card), then get a pocket wifi. It’s a portable device that brings a 4G network with you everywhere you go. You can rent them from various places. We picked ours up at the Taipei Airport from Klook. You can actually pre-order it before you get there, and drop it off at any kiosk in any major Taiwanese airport. The pocket wifi can host up to 5 devices so if you’re travelling with friends or family it’s perfect for everyone to stay connected. Also, the battery lasts about 8 hours so it’s perfect if you’re going on a longer excursion. The pocket wifi is very affordable as well, costing only about $20 for a week. Near the end of the trip, I went for a walk by myself and got lost. I didn’t know how to get back and my brother had the pocket wifi. I had to desperately ask a local (in very broken Mandarin) to tether his data from his phone just to contact my wife and get back to my hotel. It was a scary and slightly embarrassing event that could have been avoided by bringing that pocket wifi on my walk.
2. Stand on the right
Taiwan is packed with people. There are 2.6 million people living in Taipei alone. Compare that to Vancouver, Canada (where I live) that has just over 600,000 and it is easy to feel a little cozy at times. This is especially noticeable at train stations and malls where there are thousands of people packed like sardines on walkways. Taiwanese escalators have a strict unspoken rule: if you’re going to walk, stick to the left; If you’re going to stand, stick to the right. Canadians in Canada follow this rule to a small degree, but to the Taiwanese, this is a big deal. They probably wouldn’t call you out publicly (as they are very respectful when it comes to saving face), but blocking someone wanting to walk up the left while you stand there, oblivious, will not impress them. This is one thing I made sure I followed ( I even pulled my (other) brother to the right a few times to make sure he didn’t make that mistake).
3. Prepare yourself for a mysterious smell
Taiwanese night markets are quite possibly the most incredible thing to experience in the country - the sights, the sounds, the people, the food. It’s like a big nationwide performance that happens every night (though things get even more exciting on weekends).
During one of our walks through the markets, while walking through the crowds, something struck my sense of smell like a bolt of lightning. The intensity of this mysterious fragrance stopped me and the rest of the group (except for my brother’s new wife) in our tracks. Bewildered, I turned to my new sister-in-law desperate for an answer. She cracked a smile, laughed, and her eyes widened with excitement, “That’s stinky tofu! You have to try some!” I was shocked - I couldn’t believe what we were smelling was something she actually wanted to eat (and yes, it really is called “Stinky Tofu”). But we found ourselves following the scent until it was almost unbearable. She picked us up a couple pieces of some stinky tofu. Half the group passed on the opportunity. She bit in eagerly and I reluctantly tried a bite...
Outsiders have mixed feelings about this national dish. I was no different. But, sure enough, I’m into trying almost anything. And when you’re in Taiwan, just be aware that what you think may be something that has gone bad in the streets, don’t run. It’s only stinky tofu. And who knows, you might beat the odds as an outsider and enjoy it like the locals!
4. Stay away from number 4
Cultural superstitions revolve around almost every country. In Taiwan, there is a popular belief that the number 4 is bad luck. The superstition has been around for generations because the Cantonese word for the number 4 (sì) sounds like the word for death (sǐ). While in the west, we think of the number 13 as bad luck, Taiwanese take the number 4 seriously. When we checked into one of our hotels in Taipei, we noticed something odd in our elevator. On the way up, we went to press our floor number and noticed that the number 4 wasn’t there. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. We thought this had to have been a mistake until my brother filled me in on the cultural superstition. Taiwanese people always try to avoid anything to do with the number.
There are several cultural taboos and superstitions to be aware of when you’re travelling in Taiwan. Don’t put your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or noodles (It represents incense). When someone gives you a gift, don’t open it right away (Oops! I made that mistake). Always hand important letters, business cards, or other documents with two hands. Also, don’t write anyone’s name in red ink. These are a few to remember but there are many more to learn before your next trip.
5. Keep your receipts - you could win the national lottery
Taiwan has a very interesting lottery that every citizen can partake in. As a way to motivate its business owners to report their taxes legally, they introduced the Taiwan Receipt Lottery to encourage citizens to purchase from businesses who did their taxes properly. Every time you make a purchase in Taiwan, there will be a number on top of your receipt. Every two months, the Taiwanese government draws numbers at random that correspond to the eight numbers on top of the receipt. The last winner from the final period of 2018 recorded a grand prize of $426,000, and several others won thousands as well. And the best part is, this lottery is available not only to locals but to foreigners as well. If you’re not wanting to hold onto hundreds of receipts during your visit, you can also store receipts electronically on an EasyCard (local transit card), and verify them when the winning lottery numbers are drawn. You can buy one of these cards at a local 7/11 and MRT stations (Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit).
6. Don’t leave Taiwan until you’ve tried this dish
Taiwan has an amazing cuisine. Some of their top dishes include beef noodle soup, bubble tea, pineapple cakes, fried chicken, and gua bao (steamed pork bun). But if there is one dish that stands atop the Taiwanese food chain, it is Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings). Though Xiao Long Bao originated in China, the Taiwanese perfected it. Our experience in Taiwan reached a pinnacle moment when we stumbled upon the famous Taiwanese restaurant chain, Din Tai Fung during a trip to a Taipei mall. We stood outside the restaurant mesmerized at the open kitchen concept where the kitchen staff brilliantly stood in an assembly line crafting hundreds of little pork dumplings with their magnificent craftsmanship in a matter of minutes, before sending them down the line to be steamed for the eager restaurant patrons in the dining room.
As entertaining as it was to see the dumplings dance between their hands, we couldn’t help ourselves but get into that restaurant and try them for ourselves. The dumplings are served in a bamboo basket, with a side dish of soy sauce, vinegar and thin strips of ginger to compliment the dumplings. You have to poke a hole in the dumpling with your chopsticks to let the steam out and let it cool for a minute before diving in. Then with a spoon, raise it slowly to your mouth and dive in with one bite. The combination of the juicy pork, the soft dumpling, and the savoury soup within the dumpling along with the soy sauce, vinegar and ginger warmed our bellies like no other food in Taiwan.
When you visit Taiwan, schedule in a time to go to the restaurant at least once, and preferably within the first day or two. There are 9 locations to experience Taiwan’s favourite savoury treat.