Taiwan is a hugely underrated tourist destination in Asia. I say so not only because the island has a very special place in my heart, but also as a traveler, you get an exceptional bang for the buck in Taiwan.
Tainan, the former capital of Taiwan, is a particularly overlooked gem. What does Tainan have on Taipei? Despite no longer being the capital, Tainan is the oldest city of Taiwan. What it lacks in resources and development today, it more than makes up with its unique charm drawn from the remnants of the past.
Although since as early as the 1500s, Chinese and Japanese merchants had constructed small bases in Tainan to trade with each other and with the indigenous Siraya people, Tainan (“Taiwan South”) is a city largely developed by the Dutch East India Company in 1624. Not to be outdone, Spain also set up their own shops, Fort San Salvador and Fort San Domingo in the northern parts of Taiwan, Keelung and Tamsui respectively.
The Dutch sent a nice letter to the Spaniards, “In accordance with the usages of Christian nations to make known their intentions before commencing hostilities, I now summon your Excellency to surrender.”
The Spaniards courteously replied, “May each one defend himself as best he can. We are Spanish Christians and God in whom we trust is our protector. May the Lord have mercy on you.”
The Spaniards were defeated in 6 days, packed their maletas and left. The Dutch claimed the entire Formosa Taiwan as their own, with Tainan as its capital. Before the arrival of Koxinga (the Ming loyalist who used Taiwan as his base with intentions of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty ), the Dutch built a flourishing sugar cane industry which at its height, ranked 2nd in production in Asia, only behind Nagasaki.
Things worth seeing
Fort Zeelandia is…a fort. People visit it because it’s historical, but there’s nothing very special about it. I saw a Chinese tourist, who was impressed by nothing at the fort, but exclaimed in excitement upon entering the visitor’s center, “Oh my God, that’s the biggest air conditioning unit I’ve ever seen!” That’s pretty much Fort Zeelandia. Nothing much to see there, but it’s in the Anping district, which is the old town part of Tainan. Therefore, a stroll around the fort is a must. The small streets in Anping are cute and characteristic of old Tainan.
Fort Provintia has since been converted into Chihkan Tower, an iconic structure in the city center, surrounded by a small garden. It has long been a tourist favorite.
Other than the Dutch influence, Tainan embodies deeply rooted Taoist and Buddhist traditions. The Confucian school Temple, built in 1665, is particularly well-preserved. The lawns and plants are so meticulously manicured that it’s not hard to see that it is one of the most beloved historical building in Tainan. When the oldest banyan tree in the temple had fallen ill, a ceremony was even held to pray for its health and recovery.
That particular banyan tree had since died, but banyan trees is a force of nature to be reckoned with. When everything else goes down the poopers, and all of humanity and animals cease to exist, cockroaches and banyan trees will be going strong, populating and growing over our carcasses. That brings us to the Anping Tree House.
Anping Tree House is a beautiful accident. It used to be the warehouse of a neighboring merchant house, which pretty much got eaten by banyan trees post-abandonment. It’s not a house built on trees, but a house taken over by trees and it is nothing short of spectacular.
The endangered black-faced spoonbills, white flamingo-like big birds with giant black beaks (excuse my bird ignorance), can be seen in the protected wetland area by the coast. The spoonbills can also be spotted in other parts of East Asia but more than 50% of them are in Tainan. Free telescopes are set up for visitors to catch a glimpse of the graceful birds in the winter months.
It’s not easy to get around in Tainan. There are buses but they don’t run often. Rent a scooter.
Unlike Taipei, Taiwanese is widely spoken in Tainan. Certainly you can get by with Mandarin, but people often respond with Taiwanese. Lovers flirt in Taiwanese, little kids speak Taiwanese, all of which are almost unseen of in Taipei, where policies in the past have just about killed off the language completely. Tainan is visibly less diverse than Taipei, and most people are Hoklo Taiwanese. There is one Jewish guy who runs a bagel shop in Tainan. You will surely spot all 12 caucasians living in Tainan there.
In general, Taiwanese people are friendly with strangers. They treat older people like their own grandparents, and treat younger people like their own kids. This familiarity reaches a new level in the south. One time when I stopped at the lights on my little scooter, an older lady with her hands full of grocery approached and asked, “I bought too much stuff, can you give me a ride home?” And of course I gave her a ride home.
People eat fish or beef soup with rice for breakfast. I don’t know how that tradition started, but when in Tainan, do as the Tainanese do. The beef soup is similar to Vietnamese pho, minus the pho. The broth is clear, and the thinly sliced beef is usually served rare. It is common to dip the meat in spicy sauce. I believe the fish soups are made with sat-bak fish (milk fish) which is abundant in the area.
Those who are not accustomed to Taiwanese cuisine might find the food in Taiwan to be sweet. Things are EXTRA sweet in Tainan. Although the source cannot be confirmed, it has been said that adding a dash of sugar to food is seen as a gesture of hospitality in Tainan, because sugar used to be considered a luxury item consumed by more well-off families. Despite the quirk of adding sugar to savory food, because of its hybrid roots, Tainanese cuisine is highly regarded for its variety and range.
Bookstores, coffee and tea
There are many, many hipster quiet corners in Tainan to warm the stomach, heart and mind. Definitely make time for a pot of tea.