Here at WoWasis, we love to drive, and you can see some of the best stuff in Taiwan fairly easily if you have a car. The roads are the best we’ve seen in Asia, and Taiwanese drivers are exceptional in terms of courtesy and technique. Taiwan’s freeways and expressways are as good as nay we’ve seen anywhere. And for the most part, signage in English, pointing to historical sites, is pretty decent.
Where driving in Taiwan becomes cumbersome is when you’re in the city, and trying to find anything from a hotel to a historical building. This was never more apparent than in the historical city of Tainan, which has 700,000 people, and 8 or 9 historical places (e.g. Confucian Temple) that a visitor would want to see. Those spots are spread around the city, and English signage is just about non-exist ant. We got lost immediately, and were assisted by Wayne Hsieh, who we accidentally ran into while scratching our heads, reading a map. Wayne took us around the city for an hour or so, bought us a great bowl of soup, and gave us a thumbnail history of his city. In our opinion, the only way for a westerner to see Tainan is to book a tour from your own hotel, where you can engage a local person to navigate the city.
Later that same day, we found ourselves in Chiayi, looking for a reasonably-priced hotel. There was only one building we could find that looked like a hotel, but $200/night was beyond our limit. The nice lady at the desk found us a good, inexpensive alternative, booked it for us, and gave us a map and directions.
So if you’re driving in Taiwan, and neither read nor speak Chinese, here are a couple of things to remember:
1) Not every Taiwanese speaks English, but those that do will do anything they can to help you, and they will often go out of their way in the process.
2) When you’re hopelessly lost, the desk staff at a major hotel will probably speak English, and will graciously help you, even when they know you won’t be staying there.
3) Particularlly in eastern Taiwan, places to stay, such as B&Bs, may not have English signage. Go to a business that sells to westerners (e.g. 7-11 stores), and you can generally find someone who speaks some English that can point you to a place to stay.
All in all, driving in Taiwan is fun, but there’s still a good degree of adventure involved. Unlike the Romance languages, you’re not going to pick up knowledge of Chinese characters overnight. But friendly people love to help here, and the serendipity of meeting them will add to the enjoyment of your visit.