Taipei, Taiwan (Solo)

Thursday, July 11, 2024

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I'd describe my trip to Taipei end-2022 as a series of unfortunate events where everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Hilarious in hindsight, but pretty miserable in the moment. Perhaps it was the impromptu nature of the trip, where I booked it without much thought simply to utilize my company's "work from anywhere" policy, leading to all sorts of disasters. Think: booking the wrong hotel, realizing that the hotel you ended up in was a Covid-19 isolation facility, falling sick alone overseas, and feeling the tremors of the earthquake in that said hotel while nursing my illness. 

Yet, these moments made me discover a side of Taipei that I wouldn't have otherwise explored, which made my visit feel more authentically local. 

The wrong hotel gave me a peek into local life 

The hotel I was supposed to book, 'York Hotel' was centrally located, near the Taipei Main Station and the office, where I was meant to work from for a couple of days. However, the 'York Hotel' I ended up booking (yes they literally had the same name) was located in Banqiao District, and a ~40 mins commute to the city. 

This slight inconvenience necessitated a long, early stroll to the metro every day I was there, passing by local eateries and homes, ones I wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise. The morning rush hour commute was memorable and as real as it gets–squished up in between sliding doors and the warm human bodies who gave no hoots about personal space. 

These were the little things that gave me a taste of what working and living in Taipei felt like, and I did end up still having a lovely time meeting my Greater China colleagues and touring our office situated within the Taipei 101 building. 

With Z, whom I'd been working with for a year at that point.

Of course, we had to have my favourite drink in its birthplace.

Always fun visiting the offices abroad.

A cozy nook, and the snacks in the Taipei office are elite. 

Dinner on one of the nights post-working in the office with Z.

Covid-19 isolation facility, but so very homely 

So how did I realize this god-forsaken hotel was moonlighting as an isolation facility for the pandemic? Well, there were some signs. I first arrived in the early morning of 11 December (yes, I only had an 8 hour "stopover" in Singapore in between my Hanoi and Taipei trips). As I wanted to make sure I had a room to shower in prior to starting my day instead of waiting till the usual check-in time, I had booked my stay from the night before, expecting the room to be ready once I arrived. However, when I stepped into the hotel, the lights of the lobby were switched off, and a lone lady at the counter was clearly not expecting me. The booking confirmation from my inbox was scrutinized, before she informed me my room wasn't ready and instructed me to take a seat and wait–not before turning on the lights though. 

When I got to my room, it was cozy, nothing amiss yet. I did notice that every other room in the corridor apart from mine had some sort of two-tiered trolley rack near the door, and it seemed like standardized meals were being delivered to the guests, left on their trolleys. These meals were soon replaced by trash bags, to be picked up by the staff. I put two and two together, and it all made sense when I saw that the staff running these errands were dressed in PPE (personal protective equipment) from head to toe.  

Throughout the five days I spent there, I didn't see any other hotel guest. At least, none who could leave their rooms. This made me the most identifiable person for whoever was on duty at the lobby each day. At first, service was not given with a smile–alas, this was no luxury hotel. However, it seemed like word spread amongst hotel staff about this random Singaporean girl, and I was greeted one night when I returned with an "哦!是妳啊?" (translation: "Oh! It's you!"), by someone I'd never seen before. I suppose, yes, it's me, the girl who paid for a room in this isolation facility. By the last day though, the staff were all talking to me, making sure I knew how to turn up the temperature in my room as the weather was getting colder, and making sure I was putting on enough layers before I left their doors. It was very sweet. 

The hotel lift that only serviced a single hotel guest–me, post surviving an earthquake.

Valuing health, and time

Falling sick overseas, especially when you're alone, seriously sucks. I probably spent a good two out of the five days trying to nurse myself back to health, made easier with the wonders of Asia's 7-11/ Family Mart stores and apple milk, a beverage I waited 6 years since my last Taiwan trip to drink again. 

Heaven sometimes takes the form of a convenience storefront serving up tasty hot, microwaveable meals.


Yes, I was sick, but I clearly still had quite the appetite. 

I only had about 50% of my taste, but this still hit. 

Yet, the limited time I had left to explore the city made the hours feel so much more valuable and special. Instead of relying on myself, I enlisted the help of my Taiwan-crazed friend who's practically a local. She happened to be there at the same time I was, and I knew I could count on her to give me the right Taipei experience. It also helped that this was my third time in the city and I've already been to all the tourist must-do's, so no pressure there. 

And when it mattered, plans worked in my favour. Receiving this very message on the day I was due to fly was such a gift: 

A flight delay when I most needed it!

Instead of moping around feeling frustrated about why I fell sick in the first place, I dragged my sorry nearly-recovered ass out the door and properly begun my trip, with about eight hours left to spare. The first stop was a quaint cafe-and-bookstore near my hotel, literally called 'eslite me-time', exactly what I needed. 

Tea for one. 

I couldn't resist a strawberry pon de ring from Mister Donut at the metro station, while waiting for my friend RN. 

Dinner was a place called 燈籠滷味, serving up a dish called '滷味' which I can only describe as a braised version of mala xiang guo/ yong tau foo. 

I enjoyed it, didn't taste like anything I had before. 

The next stop was 師園鹽酥雞 (translation: Shi Yun Crispy Fried Chicken).

This is popular with locals, it's not your usual over-seasoned Taiwanese fried chicken cutlet (Shilin-style), but served in a variety of batters and cuts you could pick and choose from. 

And we ended the night on a sweet note with mango shaved ice, of course. 

Thank you for readily showing me around your favourite city, and jam-packing the few hours I had with everything I was craving, and undeniably the best versions of each one. 

Just like that, my trip to Taipei came to an end. Quite a banger of an end, if I may say so myself. 

Sure, there were a couple, or loads, of bumps along the way, but everything could've been a lot worst. The series of unfortunate events turned around to become some of the greatest blessings, due mainly to the unique experience I ended up with. Being the only hotel guest and having some of the cutest conversations with the staff, nursing myself back to health and understanding the importance of rest, surviving the earthquake tremors, and having an absolute adrenaline-packed speed-run of delicious Taiwanese cuisine; what more could I have asked for?

If this is what an impromptu trip results in, count me in for the next one. 
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Hanoi, Vietnam (Part II)

Sunday, July 7, 2024

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The simplicity and almost barren nature of our two days spent at Halong Bay made me crave for some of the more indulgent, excessive experiences available back in Hanoi, curated mostly for the tourist dollar. 

While I used to be somewhat of a "purist", trying to find the most authentic, local things to do as a traveller in an attempt to immerse myself into the culture, I've come to realize over time that there's also a beauty in acknowledging your own role in the ecosystem. If you're only in a destination for a week at most, there's no harm leaning into the popular spots to get a feel of the best that the country/ city has to offer, and many a times these spots were recommended for good reason. 

Or perhaps I've now become a jaded, working adult simply in need of a vacation, not trying to turn everything into a life-changing revelation or lesson about another country. And if I'm being honest I probably wouldn't be able to come up with a single original thought. 

Day 5 | 10 December

So on our last full day in Vietnam (read part 1 of Hanoi & Halong), we checked off every tourist 'must-do', starting with the Hanoi Train Street. For the unacquainted, this street is technically closed to the public, with policemen guarding the main entryways, as there had been safety concerns about hordes of tourists visiting and getting on the train tracks for photo opportunities, oblivious to incoming trains. 

However, from what I'd read online, as well as from tips given by friends who'd recently visited the spot, one would be able to enter the street if they have been "invited for coffee" by a local. 

True enough, we first got turned away by a police guard at the entrance that Google Maps had led us to, but decided to make a little detour to another nearby alley. There, we got approached by a man, presumably local, who told us we could visit his home for a coffee. In usual circumstances, this is not an offer I'd say yes to, especially not in a foreign country, but I'd done enough research to know that all he wanted from us was patronage to his "closed" cafe. Once we agreed, we were led to the train street via the backdoors of one of the units. 

We were one of the first tourists on the train street that morning and we were quickly ushered upstairs so the patrolling policemen would not chase us out. It was surprisingly how active they were, blowing their whistles whenever they caught sight of anyone loitering and taking photos. 

Vietnamese egg coffee – not the best specimen of the drink, we came to realize later on the same day, but not too bad for our first try. 

Another family joined us shortly after. 

The other thing to note about this famous train street is that there is no reliable train schedule. Getting into a cafe along this street takes a bit of street smarts and some luck, but spotting a train while you're there is all luck. Somehow, we were blessed with both on that day and even had one of the best seats to boot. 

I thought it'd be underwhelming, but this was definitely a highlight. The train came dangerously close – an outstretched hand would easily graze the exterior of the cabins – so I can see why the emergency brakes have had to be deployed when tourist crowds were out of control. 

A sneaky shot beside the tracks while leaving, before a policeman told us to stop.

And so from one tourist hotspot, we hopped over to the next. This time, to Bánh Mì 25, one of the city's most famous spots for the local sandwich. I love most Vietnamese dishes, but to be honest banh mi has never appealed to me. The French baguette is not my favourite bread type as I find it hard and dry, but I had to give this dish a shot at least once since I'm already there. 

Perhaps I was hungry, or that the ingredients were fresh, but I quite enjoyed this toasty delight. The brightness of the pickled vegetables and herbs contrasted well with the savoury and rich pate and meats, though I still would have preferred the ingredients atop a pillowy soft brioche bun instead. 

Tummies filled, we walked around the rest of the Old Quarter, and JX took some amazing street shots. 

We stopped for a little Mixue break – I can never resist the inexpensive milky ice cream cone, whether it's in Singapore or elsewhere. It was also interesting to learn that the Chinese brand's first outlet outside of the mainland was in Vietnam in 2018, and that it was able to expand so rapidly since, while remaining consistent in quality and taste. 

After a bit more walking, we headed to Café Giảng, another popular location. It's a traditional coffee shop, famous for its egg coffee, and boy this place served up a cuppa I'm still dreaming of till today, which speaks volumes considering I'm not even a coffee drinker. 

Though perhaps that's why–Vietnamese egg coffee should probably be classified more as a dessert. It's a strong brew topped with a heaping amount of a whipped egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk custard. Awfully indulgent, but worth every calorie. 

Silky smooth. This cup looked and tasted a lot different than the "egg coffee" we had earlier at the train street, but I suppose the latter was for the overall experience, not necessarily the coffee itself. 

The Christmas vibes around Hanoi were on point, made even better with the cold weather. 

As our anniversary falls in December, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy schmancy sit-down dinner at Tung Dining, recommended by my dear friend. Definitely a bit of a splurge, but the experience was well worth it, especially when compared to some of the restaurants we have in Singapore. 

Service was attentive but not suffocating, and the food was unique but not pretentious. The best combination, I reckon. 

Tables were spaced out from one another, giving each diner privacy. 

Warm, homely lighting. 

The menu was minimalistic, with only the key ingredients for each course being listed. No over the top dish names that they'd have their servers memorize. 

Each plate came with its own description cards, placed down as they were being served, which was nice to refer back to as we ate (and honestly the only reason why I'd be able to name each one in the following photos). 

Oyster & Limnophila Rugosa. 

Salmon & Apple. 

Amaebi & Chorizo.

Cod & Aioli in the foreground; Eel & Garlic pierced with the heart shaped skewer.

Tomato & Parmesan. 

Thyme & Cinnamon.

Beef Pho–now, this dish, was mind-blowing. Somehow they managed to capture the deep flavours of the iconic Vietnamese rice noodle dish into this thin sheet of a gelatinous texture. I still think about this one often (and mind you, it's been 1.5 years) though I think their menu would've changed by now. 

Carabineros Curry.

Tooth Fish & Seaweed.

My view–

–And his.

Scallop & Sawtooth.

Lobster & Scallion.

Pigeon & Clausena Indica.

Pigeon & Clausena Indica part II. It also came with a broth–that bowl you see in the above two photos.

Beef & Galangal in the foreground; Sourdough & Black Garlic in the background.

A palette cleanser, Watermelon & Strawberry, before the dessert courses, one of which I somehow did not photograph, but it was a Whiskey & Coconut dish. 

Peach & Yogurt in the glasses; Milk & Sesame sandwiched and caught in the depths of dry ice fog. 

Lychee & Mango. 

Such a gorgeous line-up of twenty courses each, which set us back by around S$115/ per pax. I can't recommend this enough, for anyone visiting Hanoi looking to celebrate a special occasion. It was the perfect way to end our holiday in Hanoi, though not before strolling around the streets one final time and picking up a couple of snacks along the way.  

Rotiboy-style buns from a street vendor. 

Strawberry ice cream rolls. 

Despite it being a relatively short five-day getaway, we definitely got a good glimpse (and taste!) of both the traditional and modern aspects of Hanoi, and this city truly has so much good to offer. I don't doubt its status as a rising Southeast Asian go-to destination, and can see myself returning to the country, though as a self-professed city chick, I'll probably head to Saigon next. 

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