Wanhua District has been our home for the last three weeks so we thought it would be a good idea to give our readers an idea of what it’s like. Wanhua District, originally called “Monka” or “Bangka”, is Taipei’s oldest district. It can be divided up into three sections : northern, central, and southern. Northern Wanhua is home to the district’s shopping area, notably Ximending. Central Wanhua ( where Duckstay Hostel is located ) is home to the district’s historical sites, including Longshan Temple, Herb Alley, and the Bopiliao Historic Block. Southern Wanhua is the main residential area of the district. In total, there are 36 villages and 722 neighborhoods throughout Wanhua with a total population of ~194,000 people. That’s just 1 district! In total there are 12 districts within Taipei and a total population of ~2.7 million. Quite a sizable city for such a small island!
The district’s importance in the early history of Taipei and Formosa (the name originally given by the Portuguese in the 16th century) as a whole lies in it’s location. During the Qing Dynasty the main trading area within Taipei was located in Wanhua and goods were moved up and down the Tamsui River on junk boats from the port in Tamsui District. In 1862 the port extended it’s reach into Wanhua. By this point in time the other two major ports on the island, Annping and Lugang were on the decline, so this made Wanhua the most important area within all of Taiwan.
While the district doesn’t have the significance it had in years past it is still a vibrant district with much to offer for both tourists and locals alike. Here are some of the highlights of the area for your future visit to Taipei!
Longshan Temple is the crown jewel (at least in my opinion) of Wanhua District. It is Taipei’s oldest temple and one of the most frequented on the entire island. It was originally built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, a province in Mainland China, during the Qing Dynasty. Our first day at Duckstay we had the opportunity to experience the free walking tour of Wanhua that they provide and of course Longshan Temple was a stop. The day itself was slightly overcast, but as we made our way to the temple entrance the sun came through the clouds just in time for us to see the courtyard get bathed in light. As we entered the air grew heavy with incense and we witnessed throngs of people rushing in, their arms loaded with fruit or flowers to leave at one of the many alters around the temple grounds.
While in Asia we’ve been to quite a few temples, but most of them seem to firmly be tourist attractions. Longshan was much different. There were plenty of tourists of course, but they were far outnumbered by the people gathered to pray and make offerings. As part of the tour we were invited to take place in the offering of incense to Buddha. It was a beautiful and peaceful ritual, and getting to partake in it ourselves was a very special experience. We learned the proper way to offer the incense and how to ask Buddha what we might want answered. The ceremony behind such an interesting religion was something we’d been wondering about for awhile.
After we were finished at Longshan Temple our group made its way to Herb Alley. Herb Alley is a street that celebrates the tradition of Chinese herbal medicine in the Taiwanese culture. Originally carts would sell their herbs in front of Longshan Temple, but as Western medicine spread in popularity the carts moved to a street directly to the right of the temple and the shops remain there today. It goes without saying that the street itself smells amazing, and it’s such an authentic little gem that shouldn’t be missed. From aloe to tea, there are all sorts of natural remedies to be found on this little street.
Bopiliao Historical Block
The tour concluded at a tea houses located in one of the preserved shops on the Bopiliao Historical Block. A lot of the shops were closed because it was a Monday (Taiwan doesn’t really do Mondays), but the shop opened just for us and we spent an hour sipping tea and listening to the shop owner tell stories about the family business. Our new friend Joyce, another volunteer at the hostel, had to translate for us since we haven’t picked up much Chinese, but even with the language barrier it was a warm and comforting setting. Bopiliao serves as a view into the past for tourists as well as a way for locals to get in touch with their heritage in today’s modern times. The shops date back to the Qing dynasty and were remodeled in 2009 in order to be a regular reminder of days gone by.
In addition to being an incredibly rich historical district, Wanhua is also home to some pretty good night markets and one of the best shopping districts in Taipei. The night market closest to Duckstay is the Huaxi Night Market, also known as Snake Alley. The area itself used to be Taipei’s Redlight District until the 1960’s, but some of the stalls in the market still cling to old times by selling an array of pornographic videos. The name Snake Alley came from the fact that a lot of stalls within the market sold snake as their main product. You can still get a shot of snake blood if you’d like, but we’ve made it this far on our trip without testing our luck with snake blood and didn’t feel like breaking that streak now. Anthony did see a HUGE snake one night while he was there on his own, but for the most part it’s just like any old night market around Taiwan.
The massive shopping district of Ximending is a ten minute walk from Duckstay which is both a blessing and a curse now that Breada has developed an addiction to Korean skincare products. The area itself is a lot like Times Square in New York City, but with way better stores. It’s saturated with store fronts and has tons of alleys splitting off from the main drags for even more retail therapy. You can find just about anything you would want here and prices run the gambit. There’s a massive H&M being built and even a TGI Fridays, which, oddly enough, seems to be super popular in Taiwan. It’s a shopper’s heaven, but even if you aren’t interested in spending your money it’s still great for people watching, and worth spending at least an hour walking around.
In less than a week we’ll leave Duckstay and Taiwan to head back to Thailand, but this past month has been a great experience. Taipei itself is a really interesting city with tons of amazing food options, a rich interesting history, great cultural vibe, and awesome shopping. Living in Wanhua District has been particularly cool because it does such a great job of combining the old with the new. If you want to get a taste of what Taipei is about, Wanhua has it all packed into one district. That’s not to say you should skip the rest of Taipei, but it’s certainly a great jumping off point to explore this fantastic city!
We highly recommend anyone traveling to Asia to pay a visit to Taipei, and when you do make sure to stay at Duckstay Hostel! If you stay, there is a free tour every day, except Mondays, that will cover all of these wonderful places and more!