The Most Spectacular Sunset I Have Ever Seen

_DSC0187Before I write about Lanyu in full details, I have to show you Lanyu’s sunset. I would dishonor its mind-numbing beauty if I did not do so.

I vividly remember the one in Paristhe one in Granada, and the one in Florence, all of which were no doubt glorious. But they still pale in comparison with what went down in this tiny Pacific island on the two short days that I was there.

When it comes to free natural spectacle like this, it is best to let photos do the talking. So here go the seven shots of the most dramatic and breathtaking sunset in my entire life to date.

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How 18 Hours in Dulan Changed My Attitude Towards Travel

_DSC0141Wandering in the misty, mythical Sansiantai.

A while ago, I had this conversation with an over-achieving colleague of mine who had traveled quite a bit. When I told him about my mild dirty toilet-phobia, my aversion to prolonged bus rides and my preference for doing research beforehand about the place I am going to visit, he started to flaunt his different adventures and sermonize about how I would never experience real and profound traveling because of my psychological limitation. He did not say it, but the thought he was having- that all my travels were then superficial and I knew nothing about travels- was written all over his face.

I did feel tongue-tied and inferior when he shoved those lessons down my throat. The truth remains that I have not traveled as extensively as he has. I thought perhaps I really was missing out big time. Like, oh my gosh, how many crazy and unforgettable filthy toilet incidents had I missed? How many Before Sunrise & Before Sunset kind of encounters on long bus rides had I missed? I might have even met the love of my life on one of those rides!!!

No, seriously, his words haunted me for much longer than expected. However, the more I went over the conversation in my head, the more I realized that he is full of shits. And the sooner he gets off his high horse, the better for him, me and the entire human race. I do research in advance because first and foremost, I want to know if there is any red flag about the hostel (and the area) I will be staying at. Also, I do not want to waste time reading guide books on the go like he usually does. I avoid long bus rides because I want to spend more time INSIDE a place exploring. I skip filthy toilets whenever I can because…who the fuck picks filthy toilets over clean ones?

The bottom line is every journey is personal and beautiful; there really is no right or wrong way to travel. We simply do it the way we want to do it. Don’t belittle someone’s travels just because his traveling style is different from yours. 

I fervently believe as long as we go somewhere, there will be memories to be made and lessons to be learned. So, it is all good. I mean, shopping at Chanel or Lanvin while in Paris is, in and of itself, a lesson about French history and culture, right? LOL. 

Oh, and another thing: I cannot take people who still think Lonely Planet is the backpacker’s bible seriously.

Last time I checked, Lonely Planet did not seem to be aware of this off-the-beaten-path beach town. 

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The reason I shared that with you guys is I keep hearing the whole world advise against spending too little time when visiting a place as it would be impossible to get its vibe and have lasting impressions. It is a well-intended advice, but impractical for most. Oftentimes, a few days or a few hours are all that we have.

My trip to Dulan proves that a short stay does not mean a short amount of memories. It is totally possible to have a really memorable time even if you only stay for 18 hours.

Dulan is a small coastal town located 20km north of Taitung city, on the east coast of Taiwan. Since I had to catch a noon ferry to Lanyu island from Taitung, the friends I met at the hostel in Hualien suggested that I should arrive a day early and spend it in Dulan, which is just a short bus ride from Taitung’s main train station. Their reason was the beautiful, unspoiled Sansiantai island with the possibility of some glorious sunrise and sunset.

What I could not anticipate about Dulan was the companionship I had along the way.

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I Biked All The Way To Heaven in Chihshang

It was green and empty and totally free of lamp posts up there.

If you believe that there is heaven and want to know what the road to heaven is like, I have good news. You do not have to wait until you are 80 or so; you will get a glimpse of it by visiting Heaven Road in Chihshang Township, Taitung.

For me, after going there, I was able to confirm part of what my grandmother and mother had always told me since I was a child. That heaven and kindness have a whole lot to do with each other.

They also warned me that only good boys go to heaven. This part, however, remains unverified because I do not think I am even semi-good. Like, I shouted at my parents many times. I judged my friends too often. I abhorred most of bosses and colleagues. And I have always indulged in my whims. The list of my shameful deeds goes on and on, yet I still got to bike along the road to heaven…

Proof that I’m not bluffing.

No, seriously, I would never have come to Chihshang had it not been for the incredible kindness of the people I met at my hostel in Hualien. Most of the time, you would not be able to pull off anything if you learned at 10 o’clock in the evening that the town in fact does exist and you wanted to leave the next morning but you could hardly string one sentence in Chinese together. That being said, if eight locals sit down together and plan every aspect of your trip until midnight for you, then you can do anything.

My original plan was spending the weekend in Lanyu, a beautiful and secluded island off the southern coast of Taiwan. But it fell through epically because I underestimated how complicated it was to get there from Hualien and have a place to stay on the island. (I traveled during the national holidays when Taiwanese flocked to the island.) After the 50-plus phone calls made by the lovely receptionist on my behalf to every home-stay on the little island, I painfully realized that Lanyu was out of question. But if I were willing to change my itinerary and wait for two more days, I would be able to go. This option left me with a weekend of absolutely nothing on the agenda. Which made me feel quite uneasy because I was not traveling with a one-way flight ticket. I had limited time, and more importantly this whole concept of going with the flow or rolling with the punches was, and still is, relatively foreign to me.

It is alright if you think I am a control freak because I really am. A little bit less than I used to be, though.

Lesson learned: sometimes, travel plans going awry can be a blessing in disguise.

This is another terribly embarrassing thing to confess, but I will do it anyways because I have unwavering faith that you guys are the most non-judgemental souls on this planet. Trust me, I cringe badly whenever I have to think about what I did, but from what I have heard, if you want to be good, you have to acknowledge that you are bad first. So…I did throw a bit of a tantrum when my plan did not go as I had expected. Not Taylor Swift kind of tantrum, but definitely some pouty lips, head shakes, eye-rolls and complaints here and there to the receptionists and my new friends.

BUT YOU GUYS HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THEY DID?

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Counting My Blessings in Hualien

Me and the wonderful Tingying & her friend.

Whenever I think about Hualien, I do it with a lot of love and gratitude. That is because not only did I have a really fun, semi-adventurous time exploring with new friends, but every wonderful thing that happened to me during the rest of my time in Taiwan could be traced back to my very brief stay there.

Hualien truly had a positive ripple effect.

Situated on the mountainous eastern coast of Taiwan, Hualien County is just a couple of hours away from Taipei by train yet blessed with some of the most spectacular sceneries you could find in Asia…

…such as the triple threat Chishingtan beach

with pebbles, mountains & ocean. What more do you want? 

Most visitors, however, come to Hualien for Taroko National Park and then move on. Which, I realized after spending two days there, is a bit sad. There is more to Hualien than just Taroko.

The truth of the matter is I still do not consider myself qualified to advise you how to properly visit Hualien. I only did some scanty researching and planning beforehand; the sole reason I was able to visit the places I visited was the incredible locals I met at my hostel who fetched me around the entire time. Without them, I would have followed a very typical tourist path and probably left without any profound impression. I repeatedly asked myself what I had done to deserve that much kindness and hospitality. Did Longshan Temple have anything to do with it?

Lovely sunset at Chishingtan. Really, it was hard not to feel grateful for moments like this. 

Thanks to my sloppiness (or borderline stupidity? I will let you judge), the Chu-kuang Express train ride from Taipei to Hualien started out uneventful but ended up memorable. As I approached seat No. 9 of cabin 9, I was slightly annoyed to find that it had been taken by a middle-aged woman. “Seriously, Taiwan, you’re better than this”, I thought to myself. However, since seat No. 11 was empty, I sat down, reveling in the fact that I had saved her from some public embarrassment.

Midway through the journey, though, I woke up to see a man smiling hesitantly at me and pointing at his train ticket. I had no idea how long he had been standing there, but I could sense something was wrong. I glanced at his ticket, then at mine.

Shit, I had been really stupid, and worse condescending all along. [Read more…]

These Two Sights Outside of Taipei Will Wow You

Concrete proof that there is more to do in Taipei than just strolling shopping malls. 

What? 5 days in Taipei? What did you do? Just shopping?” the cheerful and smiley 20-something year old biker asked me while shaking his head in disbelief.

I met him at the guesthouse in a rural township called Chishang, which I will talk about soon. He along with his four friends was about 2 or 3 days into their adventurous, once in a lifetime bicycle ride around Taiwan. His English was limited; my Chinese was virtually non-existent. But we somehow managed a conversation. It’s really amazing how laughing, gesticulating and being open help shrink the language barrier.

Of course, my answer to his question was a resounding “No”. I did NOT spend five days shopping my away around Taipei. I’m old, so that would be exhausting. However, I have to admit there is some modicum of truth to what he said. If you are an on-the-go kind of traveler and like to fill your days with exciting places to see and things to do, you will get bored in Taipei after a day or two because shopping malls, not landmarks, dominate the city’s map. It was good that the conversation happened after I had visited Taipei; otherwise, I would have heeded his advice and shortened my stay. Which would have been a sin.

Because I would have missed this…

and this.

So, what exactly did I do? First, an inordinate amount of time wandering and watching the world go by. And then, I took two day-trips from Taipei. Both of them were great, and thus are highly recommended.

1. Yehliu Geopark

Word of warning before we proceed further: This place is obscenely overrun with tourists. You won’t be able to snap a single photo without getting photo-bombed by at least several dozen tourists unless you are patient and have all the time in the world like I did. Don’t be deterred, though because the scenery is very special and absolutely worth a visit. As long as you prepare for what’s in store, you will handle it well 🙂

For instance, prepare to be awestruck by the Mars surface-like landscape (note: I haven’t been to Mars yet, but I guess this is how it looks like over there). I had to wait for a long time for this spot to be clear of people. It lasted for about 5 seconds before someone jumped into the frame.  

Yehliu Geopark is located in the Yehliu Village of Wanli district, New Taipei. The park, or more accurately cape, stretches approximately 1,700 metres into East China Sea, and was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain out of the sea. These days, it’s widely known for its sea-erosion landscape and unique rock formations.

Rock that looks like candle. 

And rock that looks like flip-flop. Actually, its name is Fairy’s Shoe because legend has it that a fairy came down to earth to tame some monster and forgot half of her shoes (source)

One of the many ocean erosion potholes.

Before Taiwan, nature never figured prominently in my travel itineraries. Partly because I never thought about getting in touch with the inner nature lover in me. I was afraid of being on my own, of the physical discomfort and of other million things that could be avoided by sticking to big, convenient cities. And also partly because I used to travel with people who would rather go shopping than go out of their way to visit an awe-inspiring scenery. I lived in the States for five years, and didn’t visit Grand Canyon (even though I was in Vegas) or a single national park. How deplorable, right?

So when I saw with my own eyes the wondrous creations of nature at Yehliu (and at other places in Taiwan I will be talking about), I felt a wide range of emotions. First, I was blown away, wondering how all of this could happen. Then, I started feeling a tinge of regret over all the natural wonders that I had missed. But then, I was grateful and motivated to do something in my capacity to protect this beautiful planet we live in. The mere thought of these beautiful sceneries vanishing one day- in fact, many of them have already disappeared thanks to human beings’ exploitation- fills me with dread and sadness.

The weathering patterns on the surface of the rock. Otherworldly!!!

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5 most enjoyable things to do in Taipei. Most of them are free, by the way!

One of the hundred lovely visual treats of Taiwan.

I got home from Taiwan two weeks ago, but couldn’t write about my trip sooner. I was too busy recovering and daydreaming about living in Taiwan someday!

For me, the toughest part of traveling anywhere for an extended amount of time lies in dealing with the emotional and financial aftermath. I always have a difficult time with re-entry. After all, it has been almost three years since I returned to Vietnam after living in the States for five years, and I really have just started to get my bearings.

I have also come to realize that where I decide to go is directly linked to how long it will take me to readjust afterwards. The more similar a host country is to my own, the shorter the recovery time. So, my best bets would be countries in Asia.

The thing is because I come from an archetypal South East Asian country, I’m so inured to all the cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies that often intrigue the rest of the world. The relentless stream of scooters coming at you from every direction? Not only do I NOT get any adrenaline rush out of that, but I also hate that it’s one environmentally un-friendly mode of transportation. The ridiculously heavy loads carried on motorbikes that leave every traveler eyes wide open? If you had visited Vietnam 14 years earlier, you would have seen me squeezed in between enormous green recycling bags on my mother’s motorbike. The last thing I want when I go to a new country is more of the Asian chaos that I have known since…forever. These days, it takes quite a lot for another Asian country to impress me and make me fall deeply in love with it. (But I do not decline the opportunities to visit other Asian countries, even those I have been to before, so invite me to yours. Don’t be shy :D)

Another hard part of traveling is being separated from my two adorable kids. But if every country were like Taiwan where many people treat their fur-ever friends with love and care, I would feel slightly better. 

With all that ‘mental’ baggage and a paucity of knowledge about the country, I came to Taiwan with very low expectations. I was excited for sure, but more because I finally got to travel again after staying put for a long while rather than because the destination was Taiwan. I didn’t romanticize or fantasize about it hard like I had done prior to my American and European trips. But in all seriousness, I couldn’t do so even if I wanted to because the information about Taiwan travels is generally paltry, and the reviews on popular travel forums are lackluster.

I was, in a sense, very prepared to feel so-so about Taiwan.

Taipei’s charming alleyway bathed in golden light. 

In retrospect, this very absence of lofty expectations has made my falling for Taiwan all the more special. I knew beforehand that I would hike in the beautiful Taroko National Park, but was still way overwhelmed by its sheer size, numerous powerful waterfalls and lush green, sky-high mountains when I arrived at the site. I knew that Lanyu (Orchid) is a pristine and sequestered volcanic island with a green-velvet mountain and the azure-cycan sea, but that foreknowledge couldn’t keep me from having some over-the-top reactions when I disembarked my boat and saw the untouched beauty of the place. But most importantly, I didn’t expect to be showered with such an outpouring of hospitality and kindness from Taiwaneses from all walks of life in every city and town I visited. As sentimental as it might sound, I told each and every one of them that: “You touch my heart. You are the reason I will come back to Taiwan”. They had to know that I am truly grateful.

Having a bit of a Scarlet Johansson-in-Lost in Translation moment right here. No kidding, without the help of friendly and kind-hearted Taiwaneses, I would have been very lost. 

The first stop of my 2-week trip was Taipei, the largest city and the capital of Taiwan. During the course of my stay in Taipei, I repeatedly asked myself why I was so enamored with it even though at first glance, it seemed noticeably similar to other cosmopolitan cities in Asia. On my first evening, while waiting for the traffic light to cross the streets, I overheard a Taiwanese man proudly tell his American friend who looked fascinated at the hundreds of scooters: “All the crazy motorbikes, huh?” I chuckled and thought, “wait until you see the traffic madness in Vietnam”. So, definitely not the motorbikes that interested me.

The interesting part is that all scooters in Taiwan are the same Taiwan-made type. In Vietnam, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors and prices.  

The answer was also not the ever-expanding list of sleek shopping malls that has come to define Taipei even in the minds of many Taiwaneses, especially those who live in different parts of the island. These days, I can say with relative confidence and conviction that I’m so over shopping malls.

I’m sad to say that the food scene was not it either. I know this might strike a cord with many travelers, but overall I found Taiwanese food underwhelming, not to mention a tad too oily to my liking. And that famous beef soup is nowhere near as delicious as my country’s pho.

Green squash and shrimp XiaoLongBao at Din Tai Fung, an institution in its own rights in Taiwan. It was heavenly and one of the very few delicacies of Taiwan I’d love to eat again and again and again. 

Crab Roe and Pork XiaoLongBao. When you go to Taipei, this restaurant is not to miss. Prepare for the ridiculously yet understandably long line, though. 

So how did Taipei win me over then? The seamless juxtaposition of old and new and the positive and welcoming vibe that the city exudes are the primary reasons. Unlike, say, Manila where the stratospheric gap between old and new, wealth and poverty left a very bad taste in my mouth or Singapore which is a little too sterile and suffocating at times, Taipei, from my observations, has successfully embraced modernity without losing its distinctive Asian identity. The public transportation system is superb and, guess what, much cleaner than that in the US and Europe. Except for Xinyi which is a commercial and affluent district, all the different neighborhoods of the city I wandered feel authentic and offer a glimpse of Taipei’s everyday life. And best of all, the transition from a wealthy neighborhood to a less wealthy one was smooth and actually stimulating.

As for the positive and welcoming vibe, I’m aware that it’s relatively subjective and intangible, and whether you feel it or not depends on locals you meet along the way. But I firmly believe before you can be friendly, open and helpful to strangers from far-away lands, you have to be happy to some extent in your own life. I mean, you cannot be cranky with your loved ones at home one minute and be all nice and smiley to strangers on the streets the next minute, right? So, through the myriad encounters and conversations I had during the two weeks, I concluded that the positivity and hospitality exist not because Taiwanese people are out to get your money or tourism board tell them to behave like that, but because the vast majority of them are genuinely happy on some levels and proud of their country. They want to share that with us visitors. For what it’s worth, Taiwan ranked 46th happiest country in the world and 3rd in Asia behind Singapore and Japan in 2012, according to the UN report.

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Now onto to the tangible, all-important questions: what should you do in Taipei? How to enjoy Taipei on budget?

The good news (no worries, there’s no bad news) is Taipei is one of the more wallet-friendly cities in East Asia. Unless you stay at W Taipei, eat the $300 noodles at Niu Ba Ba and shop at Chanel, most activities won’t eat up your budget. Before I flew out, I did some light research on what to do in the city. But this time, it was only for reference purpose. I skipped a lot of activities that popular travel guides consider mandatory and only did what truly interested me at my own pace. Thus, the guide below is by no means comprehensive, but these five activities were the real highlights of my stay in Taipei. If you’re on budget, I think you’ll find them enjoyable as well. Without further ado, here are top 5 things to do and see in Taipei.

1. Paying respect at Longshan Temple

I figured I should pay respect to Taipei’s most well-known (and one of the oldest) temple before I did anything else, so Longshan temple was my first sightseeing stop. Like everybody else at the temple, I prayed. Now that I’m writing all of this, I can share with you that my prayer was answered. I asked for a good traveling experience in Taiwan, and my experience in Taiwan was beyond marvelous.

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Aside from some spirituality and intricate architecture, what I remember most about Longshan Temple are the two acts of kindness that I got to be part of. I was sitting there near a girl who I later learned came from Germany and was on her way to New Zealand. She had a 24-hour layover in Taipei so decided to head out of the airport for some exploring.

We were both resting and people watching when a woman with the aww-inducing dog in the photo above sat down in the middle seat and let him out of his carrier to play on the ground. Reunited by the cuteness overload, the three of us, with age, language and background as varied as they could possibly be, started nodding in approval and exchanging smiles. As for the dog, his pint size surely belied his big personality. He jumped up and down, tortured his toys, and within mere minutes began to pull on my and the German girl’s pants. Our hearts totally melted right there and then.

Seeing beads of sweat trickling down our foreheads, the woman took her tea bottle and the disposable cups she had just purchased at 7-11 and poured out two cups of tea for us. When we both finished our cups, she grinned and refilled them despite our polite refusal. After half an hour of running and playing, the dog got thirsty and started lapping the dirty puddles on the ground. As the woman picked him up from the ground, the German girl took out her brand-new plastic lunchbox from her backpack and filled it with clean water and gave it to the dog.

To me, these two acts of kindness represent the core essence of Buddhism or any religion for that matter. At the end of the day, it all comes down to treating people and animals with love, kindness, respect and generosity.

Oh and as for the tea, it was sweet both in taste and in meaning.

Seeing me with my camera, one of the local worshippers patted on my shoulders and pointed at the ceiling…

A friendly monk who happily let me take her portrait. 

How to get there: 

– By metro, take the blue line to Longshan Station. Entry to the temple is free!

2. Giving yourself a sweaty workout with Elephant Mountain

My absolute favorite activity when I visit a new city is to look for spots that offer spectacular bird-eye views of its skyline. In Taipei, these two spots are the observation decks on the 88th & 89th floor of Taipei 101 building and Elephant Mountain, aka Nangang District Hiking Trail. I purposely skipped the observation decks for three reasons, the most important of which was there would be no Taipei 101 in my photos. To me, that would be a real bummer because Taipei 101 really is one of most awe-inspiring skyscrapers I have ever seen; Taipei’s skyline wouldn’t be the same without it. The other two reasons were the obscenely long line and the tickets that cost about US$ 10. 

Elephant Mountain, on the other hand, doesn’t cost any money (unless you factor in metro expenses) but will cost a certain amount of calories 😀 It’s a 20-minute cardio workout to climb to the top. However, the views are so well worth it especially when the sun is about to set. And the crowd is very manageable. Which cannot be guaranteed on the 89th floor. I loved it so much that I went twice, though at different times.

The view of Taipei is best served during sunset…

and half an hour after sunset when Taipei 101 and adjacent buildings are lit up. Blew my mind. 

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The Confused Dasher is off to Taiwan

the art of packing, confused dasher goes to taiwan, traveling light, pierre hardy orange men sandals, muji pastel tshirts men, tommy hilfiger duffle bag, nike orange sneakersAfter almost 7 months of staying put, The Confused Dasher will be back on the road again. In just a few hours, to be exact. This time, that road is a beautiful island called Taiwan.

The funny thing is Taiwan was never on my places-to-go list. I had nothing against the country; it was just that I knew too little about it to even think of a visit. And I have realized I’m not the only one. “Why?” has been the unanimous question since I told my family, friends and colleagues about my trip.

So why Taiwan? 

The answer goes back to my Europe trip at the beginning of this year because if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be going now. The vast majority of you guys come from developed countries so you guys don’t have this problem and thus might not know that as a holder of a third-world passport, I have to jump through hoops whenever I want to visit countries like the US, UK, EU or Japan. (I only have my fellow countrymen to blame, since many really harbor the evil intention of coming and never leaving.) Luckily, of all the countries that require us to apply for visit visas, some are more lenient than others. For example, if we have a valid visa from one of the first-world countries, we can visit Taiwan and stay for a month whenever we want. Earlier this year when I applied for my Schengen visa, the French embassy was so freaking generous and granted me a long-term, multiple-entry tourist visa. Which was absolutely unexpected because I didn’t (dare to) ask for it in my application. My trip was long over, but my visa is not. Taiwan becomes feasible as a result. French embassy, je t’aime and french kiss to you. LOL.

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