Uncover the beauty of Taiwan with its surprising blend of modernity and tradition

A trend for Vietnamese companies in recent years is the yearly staff getaway. Long, holiday weekends are the favored calendar dates. When this phenomenon first appeared around five years ago, companies traveled to scenic spots in Vietnam like Dalat, Hoi An and Ha Long Bay. Today, the more exotic and far away the location the more prestige it brings for employees when they discuss their job with friends and family.

Our company chose the long Independence Day weekend to tour Taiwan. Nearly two decades ago, at the tender age of 19, I journeyed to Taiwan and spent almost three years there studying Mandarin in the capital  of Taipei. The opportunity to go back always stirs nostalgia for me.

Taiwan has a colorful history; its indigenous community is thought to have traveled from the Polynesian islands some 5,500 years ago. Its former name Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful island,’ was coined back in 1542 by Portuguese sailors. The Dutch set up a trading post called Zeelandia on what is present day Tainan for the Dutch East India Company in 1624. It lasted 38 years before it was sacked by the Ming Loyalist Kongxinga who then set up the Kingdom of Tungning. Later, the Japanese would occupy Taiwan for half a century from 1895 to 1945, with their regional capital in Taihoku.  They left a cultural footprint of pristine manners, a fondness for hot springs and their language, which many of the older generation still speak fluently.

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After WWII, the Chinese reclaimed Taiwan and renamed the capital Taipei. During the 1960s and 70s Taiwan transformed into an economic miracle along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. These four countries became known as the Asian tigers— around the world their economic models are still studied as leading  examples on ways to advance a less developed country’s standard of living. Today, Taipei is a bustling metropolis with an advanced public transport system that helps shuttle its population of 2.7 million  people effortlessly around the city.

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The National Palace Museum located in Shilin district is a treasure trove of Chinese antiquities. Said to have over 700,000 pieces in its collection, the museum updates the exhibition throughout the year. A tourist can experience a complete picture of China’s 8,000-plus years of culture by touring the museum halls for only USD8. Its prize possession is the Jadeite Cabbage, a single, solid piece of flawless jade carved in the shape of a Chinese cabbage with crickets and cicadas resting on the outside leaves. After having one’s fill of art and history, the Shilin night market is a short walk from the museum. A bustling collection of food stalls and  consumer goods, this is the place to sample Taiwan’s famous snack foods such as oyster omelettes, skewered chicken, beef and squid, or the infamous smelly tofu whose odor can waft and fill the nostrils from two streets away.

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Taiwan is not without its larger-than- life personalities dotting its history as well. The Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-shek memorial halls pay respect to Taiwan’s founders. These two attractions are free to enter. Impressive, the monuments sprawl across expansive plots of land in the center of the city. Every hour visitors can watch the changing of the guard in the great halls. Chiang Kai-shek’s memorial hall  shares Liberty Square with the National Concert Hall and National Theatre, where local and international orchestras, ballet troupes and Chinese opera perform on a regular basis.

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Xinmending is a shopping district where hip Taiwanese youth meander to hang out, shop, eat street food and get the occasional tattoo. Clothing stores turn a brisk trade; there are designer stores on street level as well as basements and lofts that shouldn’t be missed. Coffee shops can be found on many street corners and the traditional teahouse is hard to find in these modern times.

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Taiwan produces a lot of tech gadgets. Guang Hua and Syntrend Creative house multiple levels of cameras, laptops, phones and accessories. Taiwan’s tax free shopping is a holiday in its own right for tourists. Just remember to take your passport with you so the shop assistant can fill in the form for refund at the airport upon your departure. For luxury items such as jewelry, watches and designer bags the 101 Taipei Building and surrounding district is your destination. The 101 held the title for the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010 and is still listed by Guinness as having the fastest elevators on the planet.

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If you’re traveling during the cooler months, spend a few nights in Bei Tou. Still within the city limits, it can be  reached by subway. Here you can check into a specialty hot springs hotel and soak away any lingering travel fatigue. Some of the hotel rooms even have special themes reflecting Japanese or European decor.

Outside Taipei, Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan’s largest body of water and is situated in Nan Tou County. In the past, before people regularly took international flights, Sun Moon Lake, like Dalat, was a honeymoon destination for locals. The lake derives its name because the east side of the lake resembles the sun and the west resembles the moon. Cruising boats depart the pier and circle around Lalu Island in the lake’s center. During the early morning, mist swirls around the peaks on either side of the lake, resembling a scene from a Chinese watercolor painting.

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Ali Shan National Scenic area is a picturesque mountain range in Taiwan’s central Chiayi region. The region is a blaze of color in the spring cherry blossom and autumn seasons. The high-altitude mountain tea plantations produce Taiwan’s finest green teas, such as Ali Shan Oolong. Traveling to the mountain town of Fengchihu on  the Ali Shan Forest train harkens back to when the Japanese built the railway to transport the gigantic cypress trees, prominent in the mountains. Hualien in Taiwan’s eastern area contains one of Taiwan’s most spectacular national parks, Taroko Gorge. The Liwu River cuts through solid marble leaving the weathered stone looking like layered Taiwanese sweets and giving Taroko its nickname, the Marble Gorge. There are many hiking trails inside the national park,  which are ideal to explore on day trips. Hualien’s outskirts boast a privatelyowned guesthouse and restaurant with a stunning turquoise lake surrounded by pine groves called the Hualien Bear Forest.

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Taiwan has many small islands, such as Penghu and Green Island, within reach using small twin prop engine planes or slower ferries. These islets are home to small fishing villages scattered along rugged coastlines and beaches. During Typhoon season, intense storms batter them halting all services to the islands, so it’s best to confirm seasonal weather before planning a trip.

Whether it’s a weekend company getaway to Taipei or a two-week adventure covering the entire island, Taiwan’s friendly population, high tech modern cities and abundant natural scenery has much to offer travelers. Only a three-hour plane ride from Ho Chi Minh City, Taiwan lives up to its former name and is truly a beautiful Island.

Images by David Muller