March 31st – April 2nd 2011
The entry many Korean fan boys and girls have been waiting for…come on ppl, South Korea’s more than just Seoul. 😉
So the flight from Hanoi to Incheon took a good 3 hours. From Incheon (which is a city just outside of Seoul), I took a limo-bus into Seoul. I had booked a cheap hostel that was situated near Hongdae (did not realize it at the time of booking) which I later found out was the night-life central part of Seoul, as well as situated one subway stop from Josh, my friend.
South Korea is cold. Spring just began. The trees are bare, the grass is brown. But flowers are beginning to bloom. Nights are bone-chilling. All I have is my 100-rated fleece and whatever layers of shirts I have. Seoul itself is bustling, full of people. The area which I’m staying at, near Hongdae, is filled with young people, mostly university students. There are a couple of universities located around Seoul and all the students love hanging around here, especially at night. That’s EVERY night, not just Friday/Saturdays although those nights get even busier. More on night life later.
I met up with Josh that same evening I arrived. We had dinner of “galbi”, basically Korean bbq. They don’t have Sprite here but they have their own version, which is called “DK” and the Koreans refer to it as cider but it really tastes like Sprite. We walked around Sinchon (another night-life area, just next to Hongdae) that night, stopping to have a coffee and chat that night.
The next day, I spent visiting the National Museum. Even with museum burn-out, this place was quite impressive, and even free. They had several “National Treasures” on exhibit and I’ve read they rotate these on display seasonally so you never see all of them at once. I had some special tea at the Korean teahouse there while I read my Korea guidebook, trying to plan my next few days. I picked up the Rough Guide at a used book store (What-A-Book in Itaewon) and I even found a copy of GRRM’s “Feast for Crows”, the only one there, and I NEVER EVER find GRRM at used book stores.
It was 3 pm, I was hungry, and I decided to be adventurous and walk into a random restaurant near my hostel. There was a picture of a friendly pig on the sign but everything else was in Hangul (Korean alphabet), even the menu. So I looked at some pictures on the wall and pointed at something that looked like a bowl of soup filled with sausage and meat. What came later scared the hell out of me. The sausage was really filled with mince noodles/pig innards and the “meat” was other “unwanted” parts of the pig. But being a quasi-foodie, I soldiered on and ate everything because hell, I’m paying 7000 Won for it. Lesson learned : Look at the picture CLOSELY next time.
(Good or not good looking?)
I met a Korean girl, Alex, at my Tanzanian safari and she said she wanted to meet up if I was ever in Seoul so we met up for dinner. Josh joined us. She took us to a restaurant she heard of in Hongdae which served traditional Korean food. It seemed like a fancy joint. They served a 9-course meal for 25000 Won and I thought it was killer. Alex said she’d pick up the bill so that was nice of her but on one condition; She’s taking cooking courses and wants to cook for me and I would have to buy groceries and help her make the food. Coming back to the fancy food, true enough, I have never had any of the foods in my life…unique food and experience.
We went to visit Dongdaemun Market that night. It’s located near Dongdaemun Gate (which is one of Korea’s National Treasures). It’s a 24-hour market place which sold everything you can think of. Alex told me that many Korean shopkeepers would come here to buy things cheap to re-sell at their stores elsewhere. We walked past what I thought was a big drain until Alex told me to take a closer look. There were nice lights and a nice walkway located to a small river. Apparently, a former Korean president built the place. Now, couples take romantic walks in this “drain”.
(Fast and Furious taxis.)
(Random street, evening time, Hongdae.)
(A random street in Dongdaemun market.)
(Street food tents. Lots of these around. Great for after drinking.)
The next day, I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace with Josh. Nothing super-extraordinary here, just an old Korean palace which looked very Chinese. Koreans used Chinese writing before Hangul was created so it was everywhere on old signs and walls. I’m coming to the conclusion that all of us orientals originated from the same place, China. After that, we went to walk around Insadong-gil, a popular tourist street filled with all kinds of cool artsy shops and snack joints. A popular one was a Korean traditional court cake called “kkultarae“. I bought a box to sample, not too bad.
(Entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Note the Chinese influence.)
(Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace.)
(Some place on the Gyeongbokgung Palace compound.)
(Some kind of show on Insadong-gil. Guy on horse in traditional Korean wear. Guy in cap carrying light-saber.)
(Some delicious Korean pastry. Hot, oily, salty, sweet.)
(Silk worm coccoon soup.)
Later that night, we met up with another Alex, another friend from back in the States, who’s a Korean citizen and now doing his service in the Korean army. I hadn’t seen the guy since 2007 or 2008 playing football so it was nice to meet up. We ate “galbi” again, drank plum wine, ate some rice from the Korean version of a “bento” box. We then went to a bar called “Ho Bar 2” (there were many Ho Bars in Seoul) to get some beers. After refusing to pay 20000 Won to enter a club, we went to another one which had Alex’s friend DJ-ing so we stayed a while. But the most fun we had that night, despite the cold, was at a crowded open-space at a concrete park. We saw a bunch of people wearing head-phones and dancing. There was no music blasting so it was funny to see them dancing like in a club in the silence. We later got a hold of some headphones and sure enough, some good tunes were being played by 2 DJs there. They called this the “Silent Disco”. There was also a free-style rap competition where some white guy tried to battle against some Koreans. The Koreans could flow but the white boy tried his best to keep up. I am not much of a rap guy but free-style battles are always fun to watch. Despite not knowing what the hell the Koreans were rapping about (even Alex and Josh couldn’t keep up with the rapid fluency of a native Korean speaker), we threw in a “OH SNAP!” just to make the white boy think he was being dissed.
(Bento box before you shake it violently.)
(And after shaking it…)
(“Topokki.” Found in many places. Spicy!)
(Random street on Hongdae.)
The subways close at 1 am and we were out way past then so there was no way for Alex or Josh to go home until 5:37 am when it opens again. We went to an all-night coffee shop and crashed there for a bit to wait until the subways opened. I am not much of a night-life guy by nature but I found the events that night to be quite refreshing. Maybe the inner partyboy in me stirred. I don’t dance at clubs but I found my groove the whole night, both at the club and “Silent Disco”. I drank some but didn’t feel drunk nor buzzed.
Maybe it’s just Seoul but I have to mention that Koreans dress very well and are very stylish, especially the young adults and lower. I saw some girls wear shorts in the bone-chilling cold. Crazy stuff. Everyone had nice “Korean” hairstyles, much like what you would find in a K-pop or K-drama video. The streets weren’t filled with pretty faces but there were a few lookers here and there. People seem very concious about their looks here. It’s easy to look stylish during winters (fancy jeans/coats/jackets) but wonder what they wear during the hot summers.
That’s it for Part #1. I will leave Seoul to visit other Korean towns and will be back for a few days at the end before flying out to L.A.