Neon Lights, aroma of food (including stinking tofu), loudspeakers, chaos of people everywhere: on the road, alleys, and shops. Being at a night market is like watching an orchestra of its own kind: so many vendors, lights, people, food, noise, yet somehow they all sync together.
Night markets began in Sui and Tang Dynasty, when the government regulated market hours. Because the weather in Asia can be pretty hot in summer, night market was formed so people can shop under the stars with more bearable temperature. Night markets in east, central and south Taiwan often are popular spots for students and young people to gather after school/work to eat dinner and shop.
Night market sells a wide diversity of food choices, ranging from traditional stinking Tofu, oyster omelet, to now popular food that young people likes such as crepe, hot dogs, and baked potatoes…etc.
Menu of the food stands may change every season, as locals love to try new food. Night markets also sells good variety of shoes, clothing items, and accessories, often at a cheaper, more affordable price to the locals. The quality of the items may vary, but many times you may discover good quality items at a cheaper price than in department stores.
In order to get your best experience in a traditional night market in Central and South Taiwan, here are 5 tips:
1. Learn to Haggle.
Haggle is a national sport in Taiwan (and lining up too). Whether you are a successful lady of the house depends on your ability to haggle with the vendors. Many of my parents’ female neighbors haggle even when buying daily groceries in the traditional market, hence saved their family a lot of money. The trick of haggling is to pretend you are not that interested in the item, and then ask if they can give you a discount or else you will go to another stand. Another way to haggle to is to buy 2 or more items at a time and ask for discount since you buy a lot. Usually at the night market haggling is used for buying clothing items & accessories. (Learn a sentence or two of Taiwanese dialect will also win you the favor of the vendors)
2. Bring a Friend to Split the Food.
The main thing to do at the traditional night market is to eat! Bring a friend or fellow traveler with you. Split the food together, and that guarantees you more space in the stomach for more food. I usually can try up to 7-10 different dishes of food when I go to night market with someone.
3. Bring smaller dollar bills.
Food here only costs around $0.50 ~ $2 USD an item ($15 ~ $65 Taiwan Dollar). Most of the vendors in the night market only has coin or small bill changes. If you hand them like a $1000 Taiwan dollar bill, the vendors might find it troublesome.
4. Learn Some Mandarin/and Taiwanese Dialect
Traditional Night Markets in Central and South Taiwan often do not have English signs or menus. Research and learn some simple Mandarin words related to food like:
a). chicken=雞肉, pork=豬肉, beef=牛肉, Fried chicken = 炸雞/雞排, pork cutlet =炸豬排.
b). tofu=豆腐, or stinking tofu = 臭豆腐
c). onion pancake = 蔥油餅
d). oysters =蚵仔 , or oyster omelet = 蚵仔煎
e). rice ball/onigiri = 飯糰
f). eggs = 蛋, quail egg = 小鳥蛋, iron egg = 鐵蛋, tea egg = 茶葉蛋, stewed egg = 鹵蛋
g). ice = 冰
h). noodle = 麵, simple noodle with soup = 擔仔麵, beef noodle soup = 牛肉麵
These will help you recognize what they are selling and what to say or point at when ordering. Younger Taiwanese vendors do know simple English words. However, if you can spit out some local Taiwanese dialect, the older vendors will love you more.
5. For First Timers Only : Have Medicine Ready.
If you are visiting a night market for the first time ever in Asia, you might need some stomach medicine. All my friends who visited countries in Asia for the first time had an upset stomach when eating local food. But!!! After the first time, their stomach got use to it and never needed medicine again unless they have food allergy or other sickness.
Extra Note for Photographers* While many food stands at central and south Taiwan welcomes travelers to take photos (because they love the publicity), clothing shops/vendors are less friendly towards photographers. The reason is that clothing industry in the night market is competitive, and they are afraid you are taking photos for business ideas (like what clothes to sell and how to decorate your shop). So do not be surprised if clothing vendors or shop ladies come up to you and block your camera.
Visiting Traditional Night Markets in Central and South Taiwan as an independent traveler is the best way to get a glimpse of local culture, food, and people.
Photos here were taken at a much smaller, yet local and cozy night market in Taichung City called Yizhong Street Night Market (一中街夜市). It is a spot I visit every time I am at my parents’. (Just tell or show taxi driver you want to go to “一中街夜市/YiZhong Street Night Market” and they will get you there.)