The former capital of Taiwan, the city of Tainan (臺南) is situated in the southwest of the country. Compared with other big cities like Taipei or Taichung, it’s distinctive for being more rural, i.e. lush, vast landscapes that seem to stretch for miles and miles between towns. As a result, the surrounding areas of Tainan tend to be less populous, more spread out with villages and farms, all of which add to the charm of this particular region of Taiwan.
Because Tainan is in a more-rural part of the country, its customs and way of life are noted to be rather traditional. For instance, people tend to speak more Taiwanese than Mandarin Chinese, with some of the older generations only speaking the former. My sister, dad, and I don’t know Taiwanese, so at times we had to ask my mom (who speaks it fluently) to help us out whilst wandering the city.
Historically-wise, Tainan is surprisingly rich with a blend of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and some Spanish influences. Considering that it used to be the former capital of Taiwan, it had been colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century for trading, hence the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. To defend their colony from their Spanish rivals, the Dutch also established several forts throughout Tainan, some of which remain standing today. After being briefly ceded to Japanese rule in the late 19th century, the Republic of China took over after World War II, but by then, the capital had already been moved to Taipei. All of this history of Tainan (even Taiwan, in general) was rather novel to me, since not much of it gets discussed in history class– although I had been aware that Taiwan had been briefly under Dutch rule, I hadn’t known that there was more to it, in terms of colonization from both Asian and European countries.
After a long day of visiting Taichung and its surrounding area, my family and I took the late-afternoon train to Tainan, where we arrived at 19:00 to head over to our hotel to check in. We were tired from the sightseeing and traveling we did that day, but all the same we went out for dinner to a mom-and-pop shop where it served one of Tainan’s food specialties: eel noodles. Thick and chewy, the dish consists of, you guess it, eels and noodles, all of which are drenched in this viscous, dark sauce. I’m personally a fan of chewy stuff (e.g. squid, octopus, eel), so I found it delicious. Granted, we were literally sweating as we ate our hot meal during the hot evening, but I suppose that’s the experience of it. We were too tired to check out Tainan’s night market, so we merely returned to our hotel after dinner to rest.
The following morning, we had another private-driver van pick us up to take us around the region, offering us several places to stop and enjoy ourselves. Our first destination for the day was at the Baihe (白河) District. Translated as “white river,” Baihe is located in the very north of Tainan, and it’s most famous for its blooming lotuses. We made several stops to check out those water-submerged plants, some of them even taller than us! At a pond farm, we also bought some lotus drinks to try out, which was cool and refreshing in the middle of a hot summer.
Afterwards, we headed to the Water and Fire Cave, which contains a spring in the mountains. It’s especially distinctive in that the small cave simultaneously expels gas and water, thereby giving the impression that fire is burning on top of the water! Legend has it that a fire-breathing dragon urinated in this particular spring, of course leaving behind some fire for show– certainly a peculiar story to tell people back home!
While still in the area, we passed by an outdoor market where we stopped to purchase three (yes, three!) bags of mangoes, about fifteen of them in total. I couldn’t fully complain about having to lug them back to our private van, since they were relatively cheap (I believe about $3 USD per pound) and the fact that I absolutely love mangoes. Believe it or not, Taiwan is famous for producing a lot of mangoes, many of which are grown in the Tainan region. Subtly sweet and smooth like butter, Taiwanese mangoes are so much better than the pale, stringy imports that I eat back in the United States– that said, I always load up on the sunny fruit whenever I’m back in Taiwan!
Our driver took us to Tainan city proper, where we were given the afternoon to explore the Anping District, located in the southwest of the county. It was around lunchtime when we arrived, so my family and I headed to a recommended food joint where it’s reputed to serve amazing fried shrimp rolls, another local dish of Tainan. We also got some other dishes (cannot remember their names, unfortunately), but what I found was that they were simple and hearty, which symbolized the traditional countryside of the region.
Finishing lunch, we headed to the British Tait & Co. Merchant House, a colonial-style house that once housed the British Trading Company in the 19th century. Today, it has become a museum dedicated to Taiwan’s colonial history. We wandered the different rooms containing hand-drawn maps and European model ships, as well as learning a thing or two about Tainan’s multinational influences (Dutch, Spanish, Japanese) back in the day.
Adjacent to the British Tait & Co. Merchant House was the Anping Treehouse, which in itself is like something out of a verdant fantasy: this area of the colonial estate had been abandoned after the decolonization of European powers, which led to the overgrowth of the trees surrounding it. The place is filled from ground to ceiling with roots and branches when you step in, thereby leading to the paradoxical expression, “there are walls in the trees, and there are trees in the walls.” Magic treehouse, much?
Feeling the afternoon heat, we took a break at a dessert shop where it sold Anping bean jelly– essentially, it resembles tapioca, albeit in syrupy form. Cool and smooth, it was a refreshing way to beat the heat whilst exploring the city!
We met up with our driver again, who took us to two forts: Anping Fort (formerly known as “Fort Zeelandia”) and Fort Provintia. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at both locations, as we merely wandered the site grounds for some photos. Both are Dutch forts which were built in the 17th century, as means of controlling Taiwan (called “Formosa”) from other European empires (Spanish, Portuguese, British) as they competed in the trade markets. Taiwan was a strategically-convenient place for access to other East Asian countries, e.g. Indonesia, the Philippines, so it’s no wonder that it was coveted by the Europeans.
We wrapped up our tour of Tainan in the late afternoon. Our driver dropped us off in front of our hotel, and we rested for the remainder of the day. It had been another day of running about the Tainan county, taking in as much of it as possible in two nights. Compared with the other cities and places we visited, Tainan ended up being more of a historically-based visit, which I found rather interesting despite not usually being interested in much history when traveling. I also appreciated the slow, laid-back atmosphere of the region, due to being in the countryside. Despite the intense heat (typically hotter than other parts of Taiwan), Tainan was a pleasant place to visit in the middle of our overall tour of the country.
Next up: Hualien, Taiwan!