Next up for us was to take one of Taiwan’s high speed trains down to the southwest coast and visit Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city. The decision to visit Tainan came a little bit on a whim, mainly because I was told by another mother in Toronto who was originally from Taiwan that if she could choose anywhere to go in Taiwan she would go to Tainan because they had the best food. Seemed like a perfect reason to go!
Both Daniel and Jesse were pretty excited to be taking the high speed train, but I was most excited by the prospect of trying one of the famous Taiwan train station lunch boxes. We’d heard from many sources (including my mother) that the lunches they sell at the train station or on board were incredible value for money, so as soon as we arrived at the station I went searching for good eats. And boy did I find them! The lunch boxes were jam packed with rice and a ton of different meats (duck, fish, pork), veggies, eggs and several other sides. Even Daniel was loving everything!!
The train ride was super comfortable as we had 3 huge seats in a row to ourselves, and it only took us 2 hours to essentially cross the country. We then took a free shuttle bus into the city where we met our Airbnb host at our new home, which was in a picturesque traditional alleyway that opened up into a gorgeous, modern home. Best of all for the kids, this house was full of toys and books and even a beautiful little clawfoot bathtub set outside on an enclosed patio for them to take their evening baths together. Other than the fact that we had to share a room with the kids, we couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay. And an even bigger bonus was that the host told us that right around the corner from us was a famous fried chicken stall that we had to try. Amazing!
As we explored Tainan over the next week, we really started to fall in love with this city and country. First off, it is beautiful and walkable and has fantastic food. But even more so, it is ridiculously kid-friendly with parks and playgrounds everywhere, high chairs in most restaurants, breastfeeding rooms on the trains and seeming all other public places. Most of all though we were touched by the people of Tainan who were so warm and friendly and willing to help us out even as we fumbled through our non-existent Mandarin. Our previous experience in China may have made us a little reticent as we definitely struggled with the language barrier and had many frustrating experiences with people who couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak Mandarin. But here in Tainan (and really everywhere in Taiwan that we visited), people were patient and courteous and did everything they could to help us out. It made us feel more brave and open to just going up to people to ask questions in markets or on the street. And it completely put us at ease while walking around or when searching for food, as we didn’t feel we needed to be super prepared and know exactly where we were going and what we wanted beforehand.
We started off our first morning (and soon after every morning) at a local breakfast joint called A-Bao that our Airbnb host had recommended. It had a ton of selection and was really close by which was great for us as mornings are often hectic trying to get the kids up, out the door and fed before Jacob needs to go back down for his first nap. We got to know all the lovely ladies who worked there, and tried ordering many different foods each day (yay for picture menus). We had fried noodles, radish cakes, various white bread club sandwiches, scallion pancakes rolled with eggs and meat, etc. Jesse and I got intrigued by some of their lunch options that were essentially just different takes on fast food burgers (which we just ordered for breakfast anyway). They all had amazing English-translated names, such as the “Beef Bacon Cheese Peanut Butter Egg Castle” which also included what seemed to be thousand island dressing, and our favourite – the “Japanese white sauce fried cod fish balls Fort” which was delicious. Eventually the ladies behind the counter got brave enough to ask to hold Jacob one day which I guess they had been wanting to do for a while. We were more than happy to oblige (to be honest we had always hoped more people would take him from us while we ate the way they did when we visited Vietnam with Daniel) and they all seemed pretty happy to be able to play with him and take photos with him. Our mornings at A-bao were a perfect way to start the day. The food here wasn’t super fancy but it was consistently tasty and definitely became our go-to breakfast place for the week. We loved it!
While Jesse and I have always loved walking through markets in different countries, we often feel intimidated when trying to actually buy anything as we never know how to properly navigate the conversation or whether we are supposed to bargain. Luckily in Tainan, all the vendors were so friendly and didn’t seem to overcharge us when we bought from them! So we went around each morning getting pineapple, watermelon and other fruits from our favourite vendors. We found some delicious and beautiful sushi for lunch one day and some awesome deep fried mystery items as well. We also soon discovered at one of the entrances of the market there was a vendor who had huge giant slabs of fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth sponge cakes of all kinds of flavours that we instantly became addicted to. Our favourite flavour was definitely the black sesame marble version, followed closely by the classic plain one. Never have we eaten so much cake on a regular basis before…but it was so so worth it.
Some days Jacob would take his morning nap in the carrier so we could stay out longer to explore the city. On the days when he napped at home, Daniel typically spent his mornings building all sorts of crazy structures with the various toys that were in the house. He and Jesse started to get pretty creative with the duplo legos and made some massive dump truck flatbread tow truck animal carriers. Other mornings Jesse and Daniel would head out to a park nearby to play and I would come meet them when Jacob awoke. The parks all seem to have these rows of colourful streamers that hang above them that give a bit of shade but also make for beautiful photos. It was pretty hot out each day and despite always being drenched in sweat, Daniel absolutely loved playing at these parks. Some days other kids would be around and he remained his shy but awestruck self. Other days it would be just us, and he’d run around like he was king of the castle. He was also very intrigued whenever there was someone using the adult exercise equipment at the parks, and often tried his hand at each setup when it was free…which was pretty cute. Something we weren’t expecting was how often we would see military fighter jets zooming over us in the sky each day. We soon learned that there was an air force base close by and I guess they take their planes out for drills quite often! Daniel certainly enjoyed it. Jesse was also happy to discover a park one morning that could only be accessed while wondering through alleyways (of which Tainan has many, all seemingly so picturesque) and was conveniently on the way to the market.
Half way between the park and the market we found an awesome noodle shop that sold hand made noodles made with different ingredients like spinach and burdock root . They also had an assortment of meats and tofus that you could just point at and they put them together in a plate and covered them with sauce and scallions. Everything here was delicious (noodles in sesame sauce, wonton noodle soup, fishball soup) and we met a really kind waiter who could speak English and help us navigate the menu. We discovered here in Tainan that Jacob is a noodle slurping champion and can eat endless noodles (and everything really) which the noodle shop owners and workers really enjoyed. Daniel too became pretty adept at using his kid-friendly chopsticks (from PoPo) during our time in Tainan, always wielding them at each meal. Eating these meals together as a family has become a really great part of our daily routine even though it can be stressful at times when Jacob is fussy or Daniel is whiney. Overall I have to say it’s so much fun to be able to have this precious time to enjoy each other’s company.
When both kids napped in the afternoon, it gave Jesse or me a chance to get out and explore the neighborhood a little more on our own. Traveling as a family is really lovely, but you definitely can miss having some time to yourself without kids, so afternoon nap time was when we could relax a little as adults. Some days Jesse would go hunting for coffee and other days I would go to the laundromat and use the down time to find snacks or go for walks. These times ended up being some of our favourite memories, probably because we were able take the time to really soak in the surroundings as opposed to always being on watch with the kids. One day when Jacob woke a little early from nap, Jesse put him in the carrier and wandered around some of the alleyways and streets near us in search of good coffee (also using the time to catch up on his slate of podcasts). Luckily he brought the camera along and got some great shots of the things he saw, like an old clay court tennis club in a nearby park, more beautiful back alleys, and other snippets of local life in Tainan. He even got an animated “thumbs up” from one man which he assumed was for carrying around Jacob.
Tainan city proved to be very walkable, but when we wanted to head somewhere a little further out we would just hop in a taxi to get there. Before kids, Jesse and I would almost always avoid taking taxis in favour of walking or transit. But now with kids I have to admit it is a huge convenience and allows us to see so much more than we could on foot alone. Daniel also loved taking taxi rides around, always staring with excitement out the window (usually trying his hardest to see the wheels of vehicles passing by) and constantly describing what he saw (or asking us to). His way of describing things is to say “Why is that a <insert vehicle>?” which he will repeat over and over again regardless of whether we answer him or not. He also loves to ask “Why are we in a taxi?” and always requests different kinds of taxis like taxi vans or taxi cars even though we always tell him that we cannot choose what comes to us first.
Though we didn’t hit up too many historic sites while we were there (it is hard to manage with the kids, and has never been our favourite part of travelling in any case) we did make it out to Chihkan Tower early one evening. The towers and grounds here were really beautiful with many koi fish ponds (which mesmerized Daniel) and cool turtle statues near the water. We walked around and explored the towers which was a lot of fun. That night we had a tasting menu dinner of some of Tainan’s most famous foods like Danzai noodles, fried milkfish, coffin toast and tofu pudding for dessert. We then visited a busy shaved ice shop where we chose from a huge selection of sweet beans/starches/jellies which were dished into a bowl, a flan thrown in, all covered with a mountain of shaved ice. Talk about refreshing. It was soooooooo delicious.
We also joined a free two-hour walking tour one day which I mistakenly thought would be a food-focused tour but ended up being more of a cultural one. We were there with a few other tourists and though perhaps not what we had hoped for (read: super slow walking and too much historical stuff…Daniel was so bored) it brought us to a few cool areas of the city we hadn’t yet explored. From here we discovered that Tainan has an amazing and vibrant art and artisan scene, with several laneways and streets lined with independent shops and galleries, as well as lots of cool public art all around. During the tour we asked to stop at one point so Daniel could have a snack when we passed a Hong Kong waffle stand… little did we know it would turn out to be the absolute best version of a HK waffle ever with shiny and crisp outside and perfectly chewy inside. It was so good we tried to go back twice after that day but sadly it was closed both times. We had dinner that night at a delicious little fish noodle soup stand in the old market building (I think we might had the last couple bowls before they closed shop) and then went to a kick-ass Japanese soft serve ice cream shop that we had passed on the tour which had flavours like matcha tea, salted caramel and yogurt. These ice creams were perfect in every way, from the way they looked to how they tasted, even served with crisp salty cookies to boot. We went there again another night because it was so incredibly good. Daniel and Jacob were getting pretty spoiled with the desserts each night!!
We also went to check out the Blueprint Culture & Creative Park one day which wasn’t too far from our home, and enjoyed walking around this art space which was previously old Japanese government dormitories. It is covered in giant, beautiful murals amid cute little shops and would seem to be a photographers dream. It definitely was a selfie stick-wielders dream! Daniel was getting a little grumpy while we were there, so we treated him to a fancy schmancy preserved plum and guava Popsicle that seemed to cheer him up a bit! From there we headed to the Dadong night market which was super busy and fun. We didn’t exactly make the best food choices this time around, though we did enjoy some tasty grilled squid and a nice refreshing watermelon juice.
One of the benefits we have found in renting Airbnb apartments (apart from having the convenience of a kitchen, dining room with high chair and more space) was to get a bit more of a feel of local life wherever we stay. We like peering into our neighbors’ houses when we walk by and watch how they go about their daily lives at home. When I asked our Airbnb host how the garbage disposal worked at her house, she told us that every night around 8PM we will hear the garbage truck pass by and we can just go out and throw our garbage into the truck ourselves. This sounded amazing to me (and I knew Daniel would love it), but we couldn’t figure out how we would know when the truck was going to arrive. But on our first night as we were getting the kids ready for their bath, we heard a loud song akin to what the ice cream truck sounds like when it drives by your house. Intrigued by this, Jesse went outside and discovered all our neighbors lining the streets with their bags of garbage chatting with each other while they waited for the garbage trucks blaring the distinctive tune (see video) to drive by. How cool was that? Jesse got to toss our garbage into the truck himself and a few times even Daniel got to go out and enjoy the fun. Not too surprisingly, the Tainan Garbage truck song started to play on repeat in our heads often during that week.
Even though we only spent 6 days there, Tainan really started to feel like home. The city is laid back, so friendly and has incredible food (of which we only got to scratch the surface). I loved the daily routine we fell into, which made it hard to leave. Some of my fondest memories of our time there were when our family was just lazing around at home together in our shared bedroom, reading books or watching Jacob finally master his army crawl. The kids were happy there and so were we. I hope we will get the chance to return again one day!
Actual travel dates: April 13-19, 2017