Navigating Taiwan’s Night Market Culture
Noisy, crowded, smelly, and filled with unidentifiable foods speared on sticks, Taiwan’s night markets can feel like a completely different world. Nowhere else in Taiwan is culture shock more likely to rear its head, and it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed by these bustling streets. But once you learn a few things about what to expect and how to navigate the night market culture, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the zany, chaotic charm of Taiwan’s night markets, and realize why they’re such an essential piece of the country’s night life.
First and foremost, don’t expect to go anywhere or do anything fast in a night market. A big part of the experience is simply meandering along while you soak in a world of sights, sounds, and smells. You might find yourself going to a night market to take advantage of the great shopping and bargains, but there’s no use being in a hurry about it. The crowd will carry you along at its own pace, and you can jump out of the flow any time an interesting shop or food catches your eye.
Don’t worry if you don’t know a word of Chinese. Taiwan’s night markets are usually so noisy that even if you do speak fluent Chinese, you’ll probably end up just pointing to what you want. If in doubt about how to order, just watch the locals and follow suit.
If you’re trying to figure out the best foods to try or shops to visit, don’t bother looking on Yelp for reviews—just trust the locals and follow the crowds. Every night market has a few vendors who are well-known, so when you see a place with a giant line out front, you know you’ve found a local gem. Despite the chaos of night markets, Taiwanese are always respectful and polite about waiting in line, and you won’t have to fight to keep your place. And don’t get annoyed about waiting 15 minutes just to put in your order for fried chicken; It’s an essential part of the experience.
In fact, the bustling, festive atmosphere is a big part of what night markets are about. Go with friends and no agenda or plan, meander, wait in long lines for delicious food, and let the evening unfold. Another of the great things about night markets is that no one uses aggressive sales tactics you might find in bazaars or markets in other countries. You might get some vendors smiling and shouting to you, but that’s it. The atmosphere is more fun and relaxed.
Every night market has its own character and its own specialties. Shilin Night Market, for example, is one of the biggest in Taiwan, and is known for its blocks and blocks of vendors and the massive crowds it draws every night. Keelung’s Miaokou Night Market is the place to be if you have a hankering for sea food. You’ll mostly see people there sitting down at tables on the sidewalks and streets to enjoy seafood of all varieties. Snake Alley has a more exotic feel and is known for—not surprisingly—snakes. You’ll see multiple shops with snakes in cages out front, and if you’re brave enough, you can try the snake soup, or snake blood wine.
Regardless of which night market you go to, there are plenty of staples that you’ll always come across. Make sure you give the bubble tea a try. Oyster omelets are another classic that you’ll find at just about any night market. Chicken hearts on a stick (and also entire squids on sticks) is a must-try. And shaved ice topped with fruit and condensed milk makes the perfect treat for hot summer nights.
Oh, and that smell? It’s not garbage—it’s the infamous stinky tofu. Buy a plate and see if you can stomach it—even if you can’t, no night market experience is complete until you’ve tried the country’s most famously smelly food. Most people prefer the fried type to the boiled type, but either one is worth a try.
If you find your feet aching after walking around for so long, take a break with a foot massage. You’ll find them in just about any night market. Just look for a big, brightly lit room with people lounging in plush chairs while a masseuse works the knots out of their feet. Don’t expect a light, gentle massage, though—they tend to dig deep into the knots in your muscles.
Whatever you end up trying, Taiwan’s night market culture is all about socializing, enjoying yourself, and exploring a culinary and cultural smorgasbord.