The island nation off the Chinese mainland has a fascinating and proud culture, writes Lucy Casley.

A visit to Vietnam in 2016 gave me a taste of Asian culture — it got under my skin and left me wanting more. I was curious to see how the gentle nation of Taiwan compared.

Some things, of course, were the same: the perpetual hum of thousands of scooters, an endless array of beautiful temples, dipping in and out of interesting little shops and falling upon the most delicious street food stalls at the markets.I discovered, however, that Taiwan has its own unique identity, and a whirlwind week in this beautiful country merely scratches the surface.

CULTURE

The indigenous aboriginal culture is widely celebrated across the nation. At the mountainous Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Culture Park in Pingtung County, four hours south of Taipei, we were driven on a guided tour that included tribal storytelling, dancing and singing. The highlight was a rather alarming performance by a boy flinging his legs around, wearing what appeared to be a thong. This, it was explained, is what men once wore when they went fishing.

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The swing bridge over the heavily drained Ailiao River features artworks of handmade aboriginal beads and explanations of what each symbolise. We had a go at clumsily making our own necklaces by melting glass materials of varying colours together; it wasn't easy, but definitely a rewarding experience.

The Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village in Nantou County offers a different slant on ancient culture as it also houses an amusement park with roller coasters and fear falls.

Following a welcome dance, a cable car took us to the top of the park and, as we descended on foot, we learned more about the various tribes' history. We passed authentic family homes made from sticks (including some where young boys were trained to fight), tried some games they once played, dined on aboriginal cuisine, browsed souvenir stores and watched a cultural dance at a theatre.

The tour concluded with a ride on the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway to the village's pretty lake flanked with dozens of bustling stores.

The most authentic of the three villages we visited was Taroko Village Hotel in the east, where a small tribe of indigenous people sang to us then prepared a delicious feast. We were welcomed by village leader Joseph, who gave us a tour of the property's self-contained houses dotted throughout the grounds, which you can also rent. The homes' beds are surrounded by beautiful handmade carvings and paintings.

Perched among the mountains, the village is a very warm and peaceful place.

I crossed over Padu Bridge and the crystal clear blue waters of the Taroko Gorge up to the Xiangde Temple, a short stroll from our accommodation at Silks Place Hotel. I could see the hotel's rooftop pool and spa, and the area where we sat and ate icecream while we listened to Taiwanese singing around the fire.

Back in Taipei we visited Eastgate's Memorial Hall. Its Bronze Statue Hall sees two men guarding the statue of Chiang Kai-shek, a former president of the Republic of China. We watched as the guards stood statue-still in their pristine uniforms and perfectly polished shoes . They put on a dramatic performance before their hour's duty was up, then marched out to be replaced by another two guards. The building alone is worth a visit, with its exquisite white exterior set among magnificent gardens.

As well as hundreds of temples, the picturesque Liuqiu Island at the southern end of the country offers snorkelling in clear waters brimming with fascinating coral, large sea turtles and other exotic marine life.

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The locals get around on scooters on this tiny island, and it's a great way to see its breathtaking beaches, including Houshi Fringing Reef and Zhongao Beach. Do not forget to take your swimsuit.

Taroko National Park in Hualien, Taiwan. Photo / Getty Images
Taroko National Park in Hualien, Taiwan. Photo / Getty Images

The scenic Taroko National Park covers a huge area of Taiwan and also has the highest highway in the country, peaking at 3000m. There are many hiking trails in the area, and when we were near its pinnacle at Song Syue Lodge I skipped lunch for a 1km steep climb. I was told by hikers enjoying their descent that you get astonishing 360-degree views at the top. I didn't have time to make it that far but was impressed at the size of the mountains surrounding me. The temperature drop was also a nice break from the humidity of ground level.

On the Baiyang Trail, a five-minute drive from Silks Place Hotel in the national park, you cut through the mountains via three dark tunnels.

It's worth the journey: we found more astonishing gorge views and a high swing bridge with some great photo ops of a clifftop waterfall and the gorge rapids.

SHOPPING

Do not skip Taipei's Shilin Night Markets, the largest of their kind in the Taiwanese capital.

Think thousands of people browsing masses of stalls. We were swallowed up by the nightlife crawl, spending two or three hours roaming the streets for knick-knacks and souvenirs. Pick up a beer and some street food on the move and browse nearby big label stores such as Nike and Adidas. Pro tip: relax in the morning and shop later; retail in Taipei doesn't wake until at least 11am.

CHECKLIST: TAIWAN

GETTING THERE
China Airlines flies between Auckland and Taipei.