Taiwan is known for its exceptional shopping. — whether it’s at a high-class department store in Taipei 101 or at the Shilin Night Market, where crowds of thousands gather for inexpensive food, fun and fashion after sunset.
But the kind of shopping you can’t find anywhere else resides in Hengchun, a small town in the tourism-oriented southern tip of Taiwan, where outdoor day markets seem to have substituted the typical air-conditioned grocery stores.
Imagine the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market condensed into one tiny block.
But in Hengchun, there are cuts of freshly butchered meat, massive piles of exotic fruits and locally grown vegetables and even live animals for those who still cook whole meals from scratch.
Here, there are delicacies you can’t find in all grocery stores of the city, from pickled bamboo shoot to a peanut taffy candy that was once every kid’s favorite treat in the 1960s.
The shops sit on both sides of a narrow road beneath a row of condos. There are no registration requirements for selling goods here, so people bring their trucks, shopping carts or even just buckets of their own crops to sell.
They lay them out on any available surface they can find, leaving an even tighter space for the pedestrians to squeeze through amongst the scooters.
The display isn’t pretty. Raw pork cutlets sit outside under a seller’s fan, sometimes on a block of ice if you’re lucky.
An old woman sells her harvest of fresh whole fish by laying it on the pavement in front of her as she chats with the neighboring sweet potato seller.
A man smokes a cigarette as he simultaneously advertises his shop through a
hands-free microphone and slices a piece of fish for a customer.
The scene is chaotic and definitely unsanitary by our pampered American standards, yet the shoppers here do not complain.
They come for the affordability, the homegrown native ingredients and the personal touch you can’t find anywhere else.
They definitely would not pass U.S. health regulations, but these markets have existed for decades without any reports of serious health problems. Some joke that this is one of the reasons behind the stomachs of steel the Taiwanese people seem to have.
The consumers enjoy their frequent-visitor discounts by befriending the sellers, who are also happily making a living continuing the family business.
Though I would recommend tourists be careful of what they eat, at only a few miles away from the beach resorts these places represent the unique closeness among the small traditional Taiwanese communities.
You haven’t really seen Taiwan until you meet these friendly old folks at the outdoor market.