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Holiday 2011

Japan    Taiwan     Korea
Quynh's full tour day by day is now available in pdf or full text is below


We came back from our 2011 holiday. Quynh enjoyed Japan and Jim really liked Taiwan, Korea was a revisit. We had interesting experiences and adventures in those countries to share. One thing we wish we could have done differently is to have 7 to 10 more days to make it more relaxing!

We have some photos to share and if you like, here you can read what we’ve done. Quynh felt like she traveled back in time as she wrote this. Some are sharing thoughts of her and Jim, some are not – so if you want to know what Jim thinks, guess you have to ask him!

If you happen to travel that way, let us know. We would be happy to help you out with questions or ideas!

Enjoy reading and the pictures! And we’ll let you know where we travel next year, soon enough.

Quynh (and Jim)!

Day  1: Busan (Korea) – Fukuoka (Japan) – Beppu (Kyushu Island)

 Arriving early in Busan (Korea), Quynh had a ‘little’ problem with her transit visa. It’s all sorted out with patience and help from airport staff. It’s only a problem, because she’s not a morning person. So small thing can become big when she had to deal with her half awake! Even business flights did not help much with the early morning thing for her. After a short flight, that what Jim said as Quynh slept through it, we set our feet in Japan. Car picked up, we head toward Beppu by the express way. It was pouring rain, so we wanted to get there as quickly as possible. It took a little to find Happy Neko, the private traditional house that Quynh arranged. The town looks a bit ‘spooky’ from distance with steams from the ground all over the town. Well, we are in the famous hot spring town of Japan. Checked in and a little nap, we took a walk around town. We thought it would be packed, but turned out to be a very nice little town with narrow streets – and very few tourists! Our nice traditional Japanese room has toilet, but no shower – actually we had the entire house for ourselves! The house is simple, comfortable and located in the relaxing part of the town. It was a gift and we could not ask for more. The owner suggested a private hot spring bath. Walking on the street, Quynh met the first Japanese nekos (cats). They slept nicely in the plastic container on the road side. Beautiful and friendly neko! Steams even come from the irrigation along the streets. You can’t imagine how great it is in the winter, walking on those streets. We were there in the middle of summer, but no one seems to mind. Old people came to the pubic olsen (hot spring), enjoy the bath and chat away. Many families do not have a bath room in this town, but using the public or private olsen all over town. It’s cool to see old people come out the bath and chat on the street. We followed the tradition and found ourselves in a lovely private olsen. It was relaxing , enjoyable and very romantic – the hot spring water filled up in the small pool made of rock and surrounded with small bamboo garden. That’s what we needed after the flights and we felt really goo! We had diner in a local restaurant, kind of early diner, so no one there but us. We thought we went to bed afterward, but Jim was up for a cruise around the other side of the town – small size one but lively.

Day 2: Beppu – Ywatahama – Uwajima – Sukumo (Shikoku Island)

We had a great night sleep. Gear up, we were ready for a ferry ride to Shikoku Island – the smallest of the four main islands, our reason coming to Japan. Quynh wanted some bread for breakfast, so we stop at a bakery. She heard about the quality of the Japanese bread and it was no lie! The ticket for the ferry was sorted out. Coming with no expectation, but aware of the pricey ferry fare, the ferry turned out to be a huge surprise. A super big, clean and comfortable one – remind Jim of the ferries over the Mekong. The car is parked at the bottom, we climbed to the star deck – nice and comfortable sitting area with open view. Quynh wanted some photos, and a nice tourist came out took a photo for us on our anniversary. Great way to start the beautiful sunny day on a cruise to the island! A group a ladies and one single guy (seems like a tour guide) played game and had fun – remind Quynh of her girl’s trip last year with friends. Calm ocean, snack sold on board, super clean and modern toilet, wonderful open view – but Quynh needed a nap as she’s not used to early morning. The sleeping area is nice and clean, Japanese style. If you want to, you can rent a private room. Quynh was able to call Mom and Dad from her laptop in the middle of Japan Sea. She was pleased. After 3 hours ride, we arrive in Ywatahama. Which way should we go? – Jim asked. Quynh did her home work, so she wanted to follow the road along the coast. It was not a highway as she though. Hmmmm… a single lane road for two-way traffic and Jim sit on the wrong side of the car and drive on the wrong lane (Japan is left driving by the way). As much as Quynh enjoyed the adventure, Jim was nervous. One side is forested mountain and other is steep slope to the ocean. To turn around is even worse, so he had no choice, but to moved forward. Some part, the road got very narrow running under canopy, nice and cool. Jim seemed to enjoyed it too as he wanted Quynh to run to video. It was so nice, that if we could, we would turn around and do it again. Every once in awhile, the open ocean views and clear blue skies along the ride were a real reward for a ‘stressful’ ride. Many times, we felt like the road end and we were gonna run into somebody’s house, but it was not. The road just gets super extra narrow at the beginning of a town, that’s all! We stopped at a town called Uwajima – home to a local shine dedicated to… sex. There we visited the Sex Museum, a really one of its kind and interesting. The firemen giggled when Jim ask for direction to the Sex Museum. Well, you know Japanese don’t talk about it! No photograph allowed, so you had to remember what you see – isn’t that easy to forget either! We made it to Sukumo quite late that day. Quynh wanted to camp by the bay, Jim wanted comfy bed…there came a fight. We ended up in a business hotel. It’s clean, comfortable bed and nice bathroom – but the room is tiny. You can guess how much it costs – Quynh tried to not bite her tongue when she knew how much!

Day 3: Sukumo – Ashizuri-Misaki Cape – Kochi

Our goal today is Kochi located in the middle of the island. Narrow road and peaceful country side! Imagine how close people live by the road in Vietnam. It’s even closer here. It’s like they live ON the street. We (actually just Jim) just need to be aware and drive carefully. The island is famous for its citrus fruits. We did not come in the season, but can see them everywhere. We had a lot of coastal ride today in low traffic and beautiful seascape on one side and high mountain on the other. Every once in a while we saw a pilgrim make their way on 88 Sacred Temples Trail around the Island. It’s nice to see people still doing it those days, imagine how they did it hundreds of years ago with very little infrastructure. Quynh believe that how Japanese overcame and stay strong. The trail is similar to Jeju Ole in Jeju Island (South Korea) and Camino de Santiago (Spain). We made a stop at Ashizuri-Misaki Cape. The ride to the cape was wonderful, mostly under thick forest canopy. The view over the Pacific Ocean and rocky costal line was amazing from the cape. We walked to the lighthouse as well. We visited a small temple nearby where Quynh rang the bell for whishes and luck. We made a loop out of the cape on a narrow single lane road winding through bamboo/pine tree forest and spreading tiny villages. It was nice and made us happy that we were not driving in the middle of Tokyo! We stopped by a nice empty beach in the middle of nowhere. It’s not near any city or major residence area. Its half moon shape and nice sand beach was very inviting. Quynh said it was the most beautiful beach she’s ever seen. Too early to spend the night, we kept going toward Kochi – a sizable city (we thought it’s a small one). After awhile driving around, we found a Youth Hostel for the night. No double bed available, so we slept in bunk bed for the first time! Room is small but very comfortable with super clean bathroom and great shower. Quynh did some research and wanted to eat at the night market. It took a while to find the place, but it worth it. It’s an open restaurants/bars area where you buy the food you bike and find a table where you want to seat. We had a good meal and really enjoyed the local atmosphere. Everything is clean and people seem friendly and don’t care if you are tourist or foreigner (of course they assume that I am Japanese and speak Japanese to me – no surprise!). Nice day, happy stomach …we were up for drinks in a local bar near the hostel, newly open small and very cozy. We knew that the bar is new because of the flower and bonsai opening gift all over the place, thousand of dollars gift as we know they are not cheap there.

Day 4: Kochi – Oboke/Koboke Gorge – Iya Valley

We spend a few hours in the morning to visit Kochi Castle. That was the first castle that Quynh ever visited, so she was excited. Japanese castle differs to European one, the foundation is made of stone and the rest of it is wooden. It’s a nice walk to the hill top and we had a great view of the city. It’s worth a visit. We drove by the tiny red bridge – simple of love – in the middle of the town. So now comes the most exciting part of the trip as we headed toward Iya valley – the reason Quynh wanted to visit Japan! The world knew about the valley through a novel ‘Lost Japan’ by Alex Kerr. The valley is known as ‘Tibet of Japan’. So we couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves. From Kochi, we headed North through the middle of the island after awhile finding the way out of the city. That’s why we don’t like cities! Soon after, we were back to windy mountain road, green forest. Happy again! Our first stop was at a place where we visited a small local shrine home to (or the other way around!) the 3000 years old cedar tree. Cedar trees grow all over Japan, but this one known to be the oldest one in Japan, around 3000 years – who knows, but it definitely looks really old. What a silent story witness! This reminded us of the Muir Woods in San Francisco. One thing though, most of forests in Japan are planted, but we recognized that was not the case for most part of the valley. Our second stop was at Oboke Gorge. It’s picturesque in the middle of summer, can’t imagine how beautiful it is in autumn when maples turn red! People come here for rafting and boating. ‘Highway’ on this side of the gorge, deep blue river below and rail line on the other side running though forests. That’s must be a very nice train ride – very quiet train here though! We drove by Koboke Gorge and made our way deeper into the valley. Again, we were back to the super narrow mountain road. Jim had no room for mistake! Stiff mountain one on side and deep narrow gorge on the other – no fun for detour. We needed some directions, so we stopped at a camp site. We speak no Japanese and the camp manager spoke very little English and tried to tell us that the road ahead is temporarily blocked by landslide. He was very nice to call someone he knows on the other side of the land slide to confirm the information. She spoke to Jim nicely on the phone. They were both very helpful and patient to us. We had to turn around and moved forward to the valley from a different direction. It was late by then! Before that, we decided to drive a little further to see the Peeing Boy Statue standing by the gorge further up the road. It was a nice stop and amazing landscape. We checked out a private hot spring resort nearby. The price made people sweat, as much as our 8 days car rental in Japan. We turned around, saw a mountain deer running away from as we came, back through Koboke – Oboke Gorge, picked up some food for diner as we knew there might be no food where we were going! On this side of the valley, the road doesn’t get any wider. We passed by a small size town before arriving at the campsite nearby Iya vine bridge. There is cabin for rent, but Quynh wanted to camp. Jim could not say no this time, plus he agreed that it’s stunning site for camping! We set our tent close to the river and had our take-away diner by the river. There is BBQ area and toilet/bathroom where we had the best shower ever! Camping in an amazing place, nice diner, great shower and a good day – we were happy and could not ask for more. The camp manager showed up later to collect the fee and shared his beer with Jim. That’s what he needs after a long day.

Day 5: Iya Valley – Uchiko Town - Ozu

It rained and got colder than we thought, but we’ll do it again! While Jim put away the tent in the rain, Quynh made “breakfast” – Japanese instant noodle. We had breakfast in the car and headed out for the famous Iya vine bridges without forgetting a stop at the waterfall near the single vine bridge. The fall said to be where samurai soaked themselves and let the sound of the fall washed away bad spirit – not hard to imagine way back then, no roads, no cars, no other disturbing noise. It rained, but we kept going to the double vine bridge (husband and wife). In the past, the vine bridges in Iya Valley were the only way for local to get from this side to the other side of the river. Nowadays, roads were built in the valley – though in good condition but super narrow, mostly single lane for 2 way traffic. The vine bridges are there to remind of a “lost Japan”. Rivers in the valley are beautiful – turquoise clear, narrow, rocky and many rapids seem like rafting heaven. We made a 4 km side trip to a samurai house. Needless to say how slow and difficult to get there with spiting rain and fog, but we made it. The Japanese really take their time with everything (well, not entirely true when they travel). It is a beautiful traditional thatched roof house in the mountain, not many people live around there. The house was built for samurai to hide away and suicide purpose. The roof and ceiling is a real art work! The entire house is wooden, all detailed work look perfect. This reminded us of Korean traditional thatched roof houses we saw last year with their super genius heated floor system. The lady who takes care of the samurai house shared with us her coffee candies. Along with the vine bridges, thatched rood houses are something belonging to this area. We could not make it to Chiiori Trust – the restoration project founded by Alex Kerr – due to landslide which happens very often in the area. We had lunch a small local restaurant on the roadside – simple and interesting. On the way out of the valley, we stopped at a scarecrow village on the roadside - Quynh loved it and bought some pottery too, paid a visit to Iya Valley museum. Now, we need to find a way out of the valley. We spent a few hours driving though mountains on the east side of the valley. There was almost no traffic, but lot of elevation changes and narrow road slowed us down. It is remote and nice ride for passenger/stressful for driver. At a small town, Quynh had a little walk to stretch her legs while Jim got gas. Later on, another stop, Quynh made a small offering for safe drive at a roadside shrine. We needed it! Finally, we were back to the big road and used the express highway to Uchiko Town. Now in the flatter land, town gets bigger and busier. We got to Uchiko after dark and had no clue where we were gonna stay! No one speaks English at the train station to ask, we stopped at a restaurant where we assumed that someone would speak some English. The owner did and recommended us to a nearly Ryokan (Japanese-home stay style). The place as full and the owner called around and told there is no room available in town due to a local festival! Great, that was the last thing we wanted to hear after a long day. Quynh was tired and she just wanted to sleep in the car. Jim (was also tired) convinced her to drive to the next town, about 20 minute away. We found a love-motel (where most people stay by hours – you know what we mean!) It was a nice/comfortable/modern and spacious room and wasn’t cheaper – but we didn’t care, we were too tired. Jim could not figure out the automatic payment system here and tried to give cash to the elderly room maid, but she definitely did not want to take the money. We went out to grab something to eat at Lawson store. Quynh had a long bath and felt better.

Day 6: Uchiko Town – Ozu – Matsuyama (Shikoku Island) – Inland Sea – Hiroshima (Honshu Island)

We had a very good night sleep at the Love Motel. Jim still could not figure out the payment system, but the owner showed up. So it was all sorted out. For courtesy, hotel staff does not need to see/talk to clients. We went back to Uchiko town for visit the old street. It reminded us of Hoi An. The town is know for its candle. It was a wonderful walk around the town. Quynh did some shopping. We visited the Wax Museum and learn how Japanese waxes are made, all by hand. Again, we admire how the Japanese take their time doing things. We then headed toward Matsuyama where we wanted the see the castle. And yes, it was not just another castle. Matsuyama castle is bigger than Kochi one. We found the entrance after while driving around, took the lift chair ride for ‘sweat saving’, Quynh’s first experience, followed by a short walk, we were there. It is very nice castle on the hill top overlong the town 360 degree. After 6 days in Japan, you saw the very first foreigner tourist. We took pictures with the staff in traditional Japanese costume working at the castle. It was fun. Quynh had her first lemon shaved ice and it was time to continue on to Hiroshima. Hang on! Jim saw a store dedicated to cat stuff. Quynh went check it out. The shop owner must be a huge cat lover. Quynh thought to herself, if she had a store like, she kept everything for herself, not selling anything. We took the express highway over the Inland Sea, bridge after bridge, big one after small one – nice ride and very pricey toll fee. We left Shikoku Island behind and really hoped to be back someday (we only visited half of it!). We only spent over an hour on regular road, traffic was to slow through towns, so we jumped back to the highway all the way to Hiroshima. We looked for a place to stayed recommended by the guide booked, found it, looked at it, did not like it. Jim saw the one that he wanted to book through Agoda. We checked in, nice room with city and in a very good location. Jim has always wanted to visit Hiroshima as he’s from nearby 3 Miles Island, I guess! We both got overwhelming by the size of the city – we were not in a large city for quite a while. Jim agreed that it has a little of San Francisco feel to it – one the coast, tram car – though it’s like of flat. Next question, where we were gonna eat? Around the corner of the hotel, there are a bunch of local restaurants. We saw that exciting looking one, walked by it and decided to turn around for it. It was a busy one and seemed like everyone was enjoying and having a good time. Finally, and English speaking staff came out to help us with the order. Plus with help from baseball fan next table, our food came out deliciously. The baseball fans were very friendly, asked us where we are from, taking their photo, sharing drinks. Quynh asked the restaurant staff for some bottle tops for her collection. We had beer and some sake. We started to like the city. We had a great dinner, said goodbye to the baseball fan group and wondered around for a little. Jim asked: Do you want a better view. Quynh said: Yes. She followed him an very expensive looking hotel nearby. At the entrance, he said: Turn left (opposite direction of the reception) and make it like you stay here! We got to the top, the night view was very cool from here. We came down and Quynh went for her bath. Jim hung around a while longer and when he came back to the room, he said he met the baseball fan team again. They insisted him for a drink. He seemed to really enjoy the night.

Day 7: Hiroshima - Fukukoka

Our last day in Japan! Quynh came down to the lobby for breakfast (first time we had breakfast included in the hotel room on the trip). She was curious about Japanese breakfast. Humm, they eat rice for breakfast like Viet and many part of Asia. We stayed in a business hotel and restaurant is at the lobby area, so quite small. The fact is there is not a lot of land in Japan, so when they build things they use the most out of it. Quynh did not have rice for breakfast for a very long time and enjoyed it – simple and healthy. It reminded her childhood. She noticed that after the meal, everyone cleaned up the table and brought leftover food and dishes back to the kitchen area where they put the leftover food and dishes in separate bin. It was nice to see that they don’t waste anything. She followed them then came back to the room. Jim was ready and we headed out the Hiroshima sites. We visited the Bomb Dome – the only building that survived the atomic bomb, the Peace Memorial Park, the Museum and Ground Zero. Quynh was very emotional and she can saw that on Jim’s face. We took our time to walk around, learnt about what happened and only hoped for never again. Jim said the Museum is the best one he ever visited. You heard/read about it and when you see actually see it – it’s very different, emotionally. It’s just simply amazing how the city was built from the ground. It became a developed, green, lively and charming city including its people. Quynh wanted to visit a garden to change the atmosphere. It was a nice little garden in the heart of the city. We walked and played. Many red crabs were running around and even climbing the trees. A crab paused for Quynh’s photograph and a turtle paused for Jim’s one. We did have a chance to see any Kyoto garden on the trip, but we visited small gardens here and there and even at local home – yes, they take their time with gardening! It was long way from Hiroshima to Fukuoka and we did not have time to take the coastal road, we took the express highway all the way. At one stop, Jim was very excited seeing a customized BMW side-car – cost a fortune to own it. More than once, we agreed that Japan, especially Shikoku island, is a great place for motor biking – beautiful landscape, great road and extremely polite driving. We got to Fukuoka by mid afternoon and it took a while to find the hotel that Jim booked. We said it before and say it again – Thanks to the GPS – with out it we could not do our Korea trip last year and the last 7 days in Japan. But GPS isn’t everything as you still need a map and fast enough to read signs. Quynh was a good co-pilot – Jim said. We checked in and Quynh re-packed while Jim returned the car at the airport. It was quite a while until he came back because of flight ticket’s problem. The airline could not find our booking. They found the mistake and upgrade our flight because they raised Jim’s heart beat! We walked to the City Canal – shopping/restaurant complex. It made UD Town in Udon so small! A family took our picture by the praying tree. We found a small restaurant outside the complex and had our last Japanese meal.

Day 8: Fukukoka (Japan) – Busan (South Korea) - Ulsan

It was nice to have a late morning fight, so we could sleep in. We were driven to the airport by taxi. He was extremely polite and refused tip. Quynh realized that she forgot the Korea guide book at the hotel, well too late. She was not too guilty because Jim broke one camera on the 3rd day and his very expensive pro-cam on the 5th day of the trip! We had one camera left.  Quynh had some last minute shopping, also to get rid of the coins. Arriving in Busan, Jim got the car with out any problem, we headed toward Ulsan. Why Ulsan? The largest Hyundai motor factory in the world - definitely not the reason we came! We wanted to see the Cat Café that we had read online. With out the guide book and all the notes for Ulsan that Quynh tucked in the book, all we know is going that direction which is an hour North of Busan. We needed a map for the sightseeing in the area, couldn’t find one. A Vietnamese restaurant appeared on the other side of the street – strange enough when we needed help while no one seems to speak English. Quynh came out from the restaurant, hopeless – you can’t get direction from a Vietnamese (except herself, she’s pretty good at it). We felt disoriented even with a GPS in huge city. We stopped at a large business hotel and ask for a map. Surely enough they had it and a concierge even patiently show us on the map the area where the Cat Café is. Now with the map of Ulsan, we went for a little sightseeing. The town was busy in crazy traffic. You passed by Hyundai motor factory, numerous industrial ports and industrial zones – glad we don’t live here. For South Korea like what it is now - strong and growing, its people sacrifice and work hard. In large city, residential area is awful – it’s all look alike high raise building, compacted and boring architecture. Very different from its countryside! We found the seaside pine forest. We took a walk around and understood why they made their effort to maintain such place for the city citizen. Despite the fact the forest is right next to an industrial port, its ocean view is wonderful. Later on, we stopped at the Teahwang River recreational area for another walk, a nice and huge riverside park where local people can walk, cycle and even bird watching. Quynh wished there is something like that in Hanoi. We now wanted to see the Cat Café and finally found it after getting lost and asking foreigner students. Obviously, it was worthwhile! The entrance fee included one drink. Quynh spent her time with the fur balls. She realized how skinny her cats back home are. People come here for drinks and play with the cats – it’s very relaxing. Finally we learn how to make money off the cats instead of spending money on them all the time back home. What a brilliant a idea though we doubted that you could do it in Vientiane! The café locates on a busy walking street nearby Ulsan University. The street is full of bars, café, restaurant and shops. It sounds busy, but actually very relaxing. You are surrounded by students and young lovers. We found a Korean beef BBQ restaurant. We love Korean food especially its sauces and side dishes and the Kimchi. Quynh actually makes very good Kimchi before we went to Korea (She said that, Jim said that and her friends said that…must be TRUE). We had a delicious diner and even happier when you found out we had to pay very little (compared to what we pay last year). We saw the cats and had a great diner; all we need now is a place to sleep. Our secret weapon traveling Korea (what we learnt from the last trip) is LOVE MOTEL (short time hotel where most people stay per hours). There is nothing wrong about it, except the fact that it nice, spacious, comfortable and reasonable! What else do you want? We found one in no time. Quynh was happy with her bath while Jim enjoyed his Korean beer.  Jim’s dinner didn’t sit long sadly!

Day 9: Ulsan – Busan

We took the same highway back to Busan. It was not our first time in this huge city, but was our first time visiting it. We heard of its size and it was not a lie. Quynh wanted to see the Busan Aquarium and Jim found it with out much problem. It’s right on Heundea Beach. The aquarium is quite big and well done. We enjoyed discovering the ocean life as much as seeing the kinder garden kids walking around in their own school uniform, hand in hand for an outing day. When you are child, you can’t do what you want – when you become adult, you only do what you can. After lunch at the aquarium, we headed to Busan largest fish market, and yes it’s huge covering market and restaurant area. We know it’s funny to go from an aquarium to a fish market and end up at a fish restaurant! But that was what we did that day – except we did not eat any fish that day. It’s nice to see Korea still has its traditional market. It was not the first fish market we visited in Korea, we actually visited on in Tong-Yeong harbor last year – one of our favorite Korean town. We did not eat at the market as we could not figure out why a tiny fish costs 50$, but Quynh bought Korean chili paste for her Kimchi. She was happy. Jim said he remembers the way to Q Motel (one our favorite Love Motel in Korea) where we stayed last year, but it took him a while to find it. There is nothing special about its location, except it’s close enough to the airport. So why do we liked it so much? King size bed with super mattress, all needed amenities, large flat screen TV and projector, super size bathroom including Jacuzzi and sauna…and it’s not expensive (compared to what I had paid in Japan). Sweat deal! Quynh repacked for Taiwan while Jim returned the car to the airport. He came back right before sunset, the room actually has a great sunset view over a sport park. That’s what’s nice about Korea, no matter how big and busy city is, there is space for people to play and relax. We had a very early flight in the morning, so take away diner is what we needed.

Day 10: Busan – Seoul (South Korea) – Taipei (Taiwan) – Northern Cross island Highway - Wuling Farm.

It was hard for Quynh to get up that early! She could keep her eye open on the way to the airport and nice to see the city in the early morning. But as soon as she got on the plane, she slept most the way to Seoul. The airport is huge, very organized and nice. We made the connecting flight to Taipei with out any trouble. Quynh slept thought and only got up a while for lunch. She hates early morning! We could not wait to see Taiwan. We arrived at the airport and looked for the sign where car rental company waited for us. Jim did not see his name on the sign as he walked by, but Quynh did. The guy looked at her like ‘is Mr. James Barbush actually a girl’? The airport was kind of stinky and dark…the town might be better, Quynh hoped. We got the car and ‘cold voiced GPS’. We headed toward Wuling Farm via Northern Cross Island Highway said be magnificent. The first Taiwanese town we drove through was a disappointment – white tile façade, out of date architecture, messy traffic. Quynh thought: It can’t be Taiwan. With hope that the book does not lie, plus it might be too soon to tell, she tried not to let the first impression take over. Soon, we got out of the city and saw big mountain ahead. In no time, we found ourselves in the mountain that recalled Northern Vietnam. No more interesting local architecture in local villages we passed by, instead is ugly Chinese looking houses. We drove by quite a few small towns and the area home to local peaches, prunes, mangos, pears…We bought some for the trip. Soon, we were on the Northern Cross Island Highway - high mountains, deep gorges and empty rivers. Quynh thought the guidebook writer lied a bit. The scenic was nice and somewhat amazing – we did not see lots human touch in the mountain like we did in Japan, where almost everywhere you would see electric post and line, which was kind of spoiling its landscape. Here, they leave the mountain alone! We drove through a long stretch valley where giant water melon were grown, must be 20km long, then later cabbage country. Farmland is a big deal here. As there is no flat land, everything was grown on the mountain slope with thousand of miles of water pipes installed along the roadside. Sharpe curves and twisty mountain road gave both of us a little motion sickness. We arrived at Wuling Farm after dark. The farm is part of Sherpa National Park. Quynh chose to camp tonight. It seemed like it was going to be cold. We were unprepared for diner, and did not feel like driving to the other side of the farm where there is a restaurant; we had a simple diner with just instant noodle.

Day 11: Wuling Farm – Taroko Gorge – East Rift Valley – Yuli

Wake up in beautiful sunshine, we could now see better where we spent the night. It was so cold at night and very warm in the daytime due to the farm’s location – seat in a narrow valley. In Iya valley, we camped on the grass, here we did it on wooden floor base. Toilet and bathroom are available, though not as nice as what we had in Iya valley, but acceptable. It was nice to see Taiwanese camping culture. Every seemed to enjoy and have a good time. We had breakfast on the table set for our camp and got ready to go. We needed time estimation, so Jim spoke to the staff and a camper, we had idea of how far Taroko Gorge from here (though we did not believe that it would be that long drive for a short distance). First, Jim made a wrong turn that caused an hour detour. The very soon we realized that people did not lie about the long drive! Twisty road along high mountain and deep valley slowed the drive significantly with beautiful scenery. We drove through a couple of very small towns where people stop to purchase fresh local fruit. We made lunch stop at a crossway. Obviously, it was the only major lunch stop for trucks and buses, simple food on the roadside restaurant where people choose what they like, pay for it and look for a table – nothing fancy, and definitely has a third world country feel to it. After quick lunch, we kept driving in the beautiful mountain road – mountain that makes one if Northern Vietnam so small! We enjoyed the drive and stops for viewpoints. Soon, we realized that we arrive at Taroko Gorge. It was simply stunning despite the fact that there were many buses loaded with local tourists. We wished we could do it again. After many photos, we continued to Yuli after a nice wander at a local restaurant surround by lotus pond. The 2 hours drive along the East Rift Valley was in slow traffic, passing by various towns that reminded us of Thailand, except all the sign are in Chinese. Closer to Yuli, the valley was very scenic and peaceful – mountain of both side, road stretches it way along rice fields. Quynh noticed that betel nuts are grown every where – no surprise that 25% of male population chew betel nut in Taiwan! We made it to Wisdom Garden home-stay in Yuli with little effort. The place is highly recommended and Quynh wanted to stay at there, no matter what. We checked in with a little communication problem. The owner of the house spoke little English, so he put us on the phone with his wife who was just gone for diner in town. As soon as we walked into our room, we knew it was so worth it! After a short rest, we had a short drive to town for diner. We found a small restaurant with open kitchen and decided to try it. The staff set a table for us on by the street. Quynh had grill fish with pepper small, Jim had grill beef, plenty of Taiwanese beers – we had out first Taiwanese diner and it was very tasty. Many people stopped at the restaurant for takeaway. We had a small walk around and felt like we were in a Thai town. After a long day, we needed a good sleep.

Day 12: Yuli – Nanan National Park – Southern Cross Island Highway - Taitung

We kind of slept in today. The home-stay host prepared a hug Taiwanese breakfast. It was delicious. In the day light, we spent time visit the house. Without a double, it was the best B&B we ever stayed. All the rooms (total of 7) have personal touch from the owner, a traditional painter. Her artworks were displayed around the house. It was an absolute comfortable place to stay. The house occupies the hill top overlong the garden and valley. We visited all the room (apparently we were the only guests) with their daughter. She said it was not easy for a girl from Taipei to stay and run the B&B in this small town. The owner gave Quynh a fan with her painting as a thank you gift. In our room, there were some interesting ancient furniture including the bed. Jim said it was the most beautiful bed he ever slept on, very comfy too. Quynh agreed. After talking to the owner about what we want to do today, we sit in the garden and plotted out the plan. We left the home-stay with happiness and headed to Nanan National Park. The drive to the National Park was very nice passing thru farm land, rice fields and small villages. Jim was happy to hike to the suspension bridge with hope of seeing a white face squirrel. He did not see one, but enjoyed the walk in the nature with Quynh. We wanted to drive the Southern Cross Island Highway all the way to Kenting (Southern Tip), but we heard that the road was blocked due to landslide, so we drove that way for an hour to look around and came back. Similar to the Northern Cross Island Highway, the road was narrow and high elevation offering fantastic mountain view. We drove as far as Wulu where we made a little side trip to a minority village. At the time, it seemed like tomato is the only thing they grow. We turned around and headed toward the East Coast by continuing on the East Rift Valley. We went to Taimali beach for a look. We wanted to camp on the beach, but it does not look like one for camping. We ended up spent the night in Taitung City, the small city on the East Coast. We found a hotel that has good view right on the market area. It seems busy and promising, but Quynh did not expect much from Taitung. The hotel owner suggested us to the Night Market around the corner for a stroll and diner. Again, we felt like we were in a Thai town – strange but it was! The market has 2 walking lanes where local fruit, souvenir, small play ground and food stall were alongside. The first thing caught our sight was a pet store where they sell pet toys including cat. We were speechless when we found out the owner has 2 cats for sale at around $US3,000! There were beautiful and playful in their large luxury cage full of toy. We bought a cat hammock and Taiwanese cat food for our fur balls back home, hoped they learn how to use it! Jim dragged Quynh out the store as he knew she could spent longer time there forgetting about the diner. We walked around the night market before we got some food and sit down. It was very much similar to a Thai night market. The local atmosphere made us excited and Jim was totally in it! He found a store where a very fine beer from Hawaii was for sales. Great local food with American beer - he was so happy. We had full stomach, nice time and after a short walk, we came back to the hotel. Quynh needed a little more fur therapy, she played with Mimi – the cat at the reception that made our Sunny, Eak and Squeak seem tiny.

Day 13: Taitung – East Coast Scenic Highway – Hua Lien – Taroko Town

Leaving Taitung, we both thought that we had more than we expected and we enjoyed the place. We drove along the scenic East Coast. Open Pacific Ocean view on one side and high mountain on the other side, nice rock formation, great highway, we took our time along the coast. People cycled on their own lane. Cycling is a big fashion here. A great thing about Taiwan, most roads are built with separate lane for cycling (and motorbike). Local people cycle all over the island, but hardly seen in town – opposite to the Japanese. One place on the coast, we stopped for a walk and fortunately experienced a welcome home ceremony of Ami minority. Ami ladies gathered at the seaside with drinks and foods to welcome their husbands back from fishing. They danced, sang and drank in their traditional costume.  Jim said he wish Quynh would do the same when he came back from motorbike trip. After a while, we left them alone and sit by the ocean – still head them sing and have fun. The ceremony was still going on as we walked back to the car. Quynh did some shopping and we continued on the coastal ride. Next stop was at Water Running Uphill. Strange as it sounds, Jim inspected the site with his GPS. It about 2 m elevation from one end of the cannel to the other end – yes, mysteriously the water is running uphill. No explanation, we just accepted the fact. We saw a similar thing in Korea last year – you put water bottle vertically on the hilly road, the bottle goes uphill!  We visited a private owned Crab Museum. It was funny to see how delicious crab meat was described at the museum. We visited another museum along the coast – Ami Minority Museum dedicated to Ami minority culture. There is only 2% of minority in Taiwan who’s none - Han Chinese descent. We were fortunate and pleased to see them along the coast, not a a tourist village or whatsoever. The coastal road offer magnificent view, but we hardly saw resorts or beach houses. We stopped at Jici Beach – actually there are not many swimmable beaches on the East Coast. Quynh’s dream is to camp on the beach, Jim was not up to it that night, so we headed further North. Quynh wasn’t very happy about it. Jim looked for a place to stay in Hualien City, Quynh did not want to overnight in 2 cities in a row. We continued further North after dark to Taroko Town and found a Youth Hostel. The hostel was fine – comfy bed and clean bathroom, but its location wasn’t a plus. Quynh wished they camped on the beach, so she was not so happy staying here. She skipped diner and played with the cats at the reception area which made her feel better. She went to Seven Eleven for a drink with Jim, still felt like loser staying at this place. Coming back to the hostel, she had a long chat with 2 Taiwanese staff at the reception. There were friends, youngster from Taipei – and missing it! One spoke English with American accent and other with Australian accent – they had different teachers. Quynh convinced them to keep the cat that showed up at their doorstep a couple of days ago. She hoped they did! Quynh felt better after the chat and went to bed.

Day 14: Taroko Town – Taroko Gorge revisit - East Coast Scenic Highway - Juifen

Since we were so close to Taroko Gorge, we decided to revisit the place. It was so very worth it. The hostel wasn’t far from the gorge, so we got there early before tour buses. This time Quynh walked along the gorge and enjoyed its beauty. It’s so gorgeous that made our overnight at Taroko town became worthwhile! We spent a long time drive back and forth for photos, video and look around. We left when tour buses started to arrive. Back to the East Coast, we continued north. It was a very cloudy day and rained from time to time. We could not see too far offshore, but the costal line was picturesque. One place that really caught our sight was beautiful rice terraces right on the ocean – color contrast was fantastic – we’ve never seen anything quite similar. We drove through various small size towns along the coast. By mid afternoon, we made our way through the mountains to Juifen. As result of a volcanic island, the elevation changes very quickly and sharply from coast to mountain and made a huge weather difference within small area. For a while we felt like driving in Sapa mountains – windy, foggy, twisty and when the wind blows the fog, we had amazing view. We both noticed very “colorful houses” on the hillside, which we’ve never seen before in Taiwan. Very soon, Quynh realized that those were local cemeteries and wondered why Taiwanese houses have a boring Chinese look in white tile façade – opposite to those graves. We also noticed that in both Japan and Taiwan, grave sites always have prime real estate – amazing location! We had trouble finding the place we wanted to stay tonight. The address was very general, so it took us a long time to finally find it. Big disappointment looking at it and no one there - so we drove back to Juifen. We drove through it on the way in and scared of the traffic madness in this tiny town. The reason was the town is very famous for its old tea houses hidden away in narrow back streets on the hillside accessible by thousands of steeps, not including the fact that it has amazing mountain landscape overlooking the ocean.  People from the neighboring towns come to enjoy tea (which is a culture here) and stunning landscape. We were there by late afternoon when tour buses started to take people home – that’s why it caused the horrified traffic scene. We waited a while when things calmed down and found a place to stay. The reception area had casual look, but our room was amazing – glass door to balcony allowing mountain/ocean view from the bed, of course stunning view from the balcony. Thick and comfy mattress on the wooden floor (Japanese style), very nice bathroom with similar view – it was a compensation for where we slept last night, Quynh thought. She was very happy – food is usually not a big deal, but nice place to stay is more important for her! Jim went out for a leg stretch and Quynh stayed enjoy the beautiful sunset from her balcony - sunlight outbreak through the cloud creating beautiful color and cloud formation over the ocean and mountains.  It was just a very nice way to end the day. The town was quiet after the tour buses left. It actually had a feel of Sapa to it – the mountain and hilly streets and steeps. Jim came back and regretted that he missed the sunset from the balcony. We went out for diner and found a very nice local restaurant – food was great and the view is just as nice as it was from our hotel balcony. We came back down the steps along Chinese red lanterns – it makes the town special. It rained, so we stopped at a convenient store for a beer. It was gonna be a nice sleep!

Day 15: Juifen – Pinglin – Neidong Forest  -  Taipei

We slept in a bit and woke up in a beautiful sunshine. The day view from the room was just as good as at night. Quynh came downstairs for breakfast – the rice porridge was lovely, so she could not resist it. The family was really nice and friendly with two young daughters. They decorated the B&B with family pictures and fun stuff. Each floor, they named the room differently – ours named after car brand name – we had Toyota room! Quynh took time for a walk while Jim checked out. He agreed that the rice porridge was delicious. We headed toward Taipei in a lovely sunny day. We enjoyed the mountain ride as stopped as we wished. We came across a small town and almost missed it if our curiosity wasn’t strong enough. Walking thru a small market area, we discovered a charming little old street where small shops were opposite the old rail line. Everywhere, people hung up wishes written on bamboo – thousands of them. Quynh disappeared in a little shop for some shopping. Jim went to take picture of a young couple coming all the way from Taipei for their wedding photo album! He went to a shop and sent a postcard to his Mother – he used to do that when he traveled before. Quynh sent one to her family. It was a nice feeling sending a postcard to people you love. As we walked back to the car, Jim showed Quynh a game – he seemed to enjoy little games when we travel. A funny thing we saw at the entrance, a cute little pig cruising around next to a women working on a pig leg for lunch! We had a real nice time at this roadside town. Our next stop was Pinglin – Taiwanese Oolong tea plantation, where we visited the Tea Museum said to be the largest on in the world. Jim loves tea, so it’s definitely worth a visit. We learnt about how tea became international drink and how it’s made – a bit of an educational tour! At the end of the visit, Quynh had a tea ice-cream that she had before in the most beautiful Bosoeng tea plantation in Korea last year. She bought a beautiful tea pot and cup for her Father – a huge tea lover. We made some side trip to smaller road searching for tea plantation. We saw small plantation everywhere rather than massive one like we did in Korea. Perhaps we did not find the right area. Our last stop was at Neidong Forest as we want last bit of green before entering the massive city. Jim worked on copying the GPS as we had to return the car today while Quynh took a walk to the waterfall. It was nice and refreshing and people happened to appreciate it more by the fact that there is such a lovely beautiful forest area just some 20km out of Taipei. Back to the car, we headed to our final destination – Taipei City. Very soon, we realized that we were in a very big city. Bed timing, we got stuck in heavy traffic with very little driving regulations – especially motorbike and scooter. We got lost – for sure – and Jim lost his patience that he usually had while driving, very unusual. With Quynh as a co-pilot, he finally brought us safely to the hotel that he booked online. He said he wanted a very nice hotel for the end of the trip and it was not a lie! We spent just as much as a business hotel in Japan – but 4 times more value. We had a lovely room. Quynh repacked while Jim returned the car. We don’t come this way that often and there are a couple of things that we want to see in Taipei, but we don’t have time to do it today – Quynh thought to herself, surely similar to what Jim had in mind. We decided to change the flight and spend one more night. Fortunately, the flight worked out and the room was available – and the hotel upgraded us to more expensive one, sweat! Car return taken care, trip extension sorted out – we thought it was a right decision. We went out for a walk and ended up at a small night market – though Quynh preferred the one in Taitung City, we had a nice time at this market too. It was interesting watching how dumpling was made freshly with care at the market. We walked to a bar for a drink before going to bed. The city was still very busy even thought it was almost midnight.

Day 16: Taipei 101 and Botanical Garden

Jim needed to get a bit of work done, so we had an easy morning. Quynh went out for a walk and visited a temple. We tended not to visit too many temples when we travel, only if it’s very special. It was a nice one in the middle of the town – amazing how religion has its influence on people no matter where. She came back to the room and Jim was ready for the afternoon exploring Taipei. We used taxi to get around. Our first stop was at the Botanical Garden on the other side of the town. It was a nice walk around the garden. Quynh spent much time at the lotus pond and looking at the squirrel eating. It was cool that people come to this garden for bird watching – the garden is right in the middle of a busy city. We were kind of looking for the Malaysian Night Heron – a rare bird can be seen at this palace. Jim thought he did. Wish we have something like that where we live! We jumped on a taxi and asked the drive to take us to the Fine Art Museum, but we ended up at Taipei 101 – because we changed our mind half way! And it was actually a good choice. We had fun even before we entered the building – Jim took Quynh’s picture from the ground next to the towel! It came out great. We bought ticket to 89th floor for observation area. Surely enough, we were not the only people want to get up there – we had to queue up, but not too long. It was a wow when we got up there, great 360 degree view! From up there, we saw how big Taipei is. It’s a very green modern city and totally different than other Taiwanese towns/cities we’d been to. From 89th floor looking down, it was like we were in a miniature museum – a live one. It was nice to see not far from the city, there are green spaces, mountains, forests and beaches when people want to escape the town. We even saw the Juifen where we slept last night! Now we see why young people we met missed Taipei – it definitely also for a good reason. We were more impressed by the city than we thought we would. Jim spent much time for the observation and Quynh spent something looking for souvenir – she bought herself a pearl necklace and one for her mother. We wanted to visualize some fun memory at Taipei 101, so we had our photo done up there – Jim climbed up the tower holding Quynh in one hand. We ended up spending 3 hours when we realized that it was getting late. We got back to the hotel, happily. After a little rest, we decided to have buffet diner at the hotel. It was a nice buffet where Japanese, Thai and Taiwanese foods are available. Quynh felt like she wanted a warm milk bath, so Jim got her 4 litters of milk for the bath. It was great – and he enjoyed it too.

Day 17: Taipei – Bangkok – Home!

As always, wake up early is problematic for Quynh, though she handled it pretty well this time! She slept most the way to the airport – no surprise! We had sometime at the business lounge and got on the flight to Bangkok. Quynh again slept most of her way through on her business class seat, not sure what Jim was doing. We got to Bangkok, a little lunch at the business lounge – Quynh had a little massage as well – tough morning for her! We had a little work done at the lounge and off we got on the last flight home where Sunny, Eak and Squeak were waiting for us.