What.A.Trip. It’s been almost a week since we returned from Korea and Japan but despite the jetlag and general exhaustion, I’m still buzzing with adrenaline from the experience. We had a fantastic eleven days in Seoul and Tokyo, one of our best trips ever.
I’ll fill you in with everything with did in Tokyo in my next blog post but for now, here’s what we did in Seoul, South Korea.
Here’s what we did in Seoul:
Our five days in Seoul wasn’t a typical travel experience for us. As we’d spent two years living just outside the city, we were already very familiar with the it. This trip wasn’t about trying to cover the must see sights, it was more about taking a trip down memory lane; visiting our friends who still live there, and all our old haunts. We visited with our friend Brian who was living in Korea when we were there too and we all stayed in an airbnb together.
Drinks in Hapjeong
Glasgow to Seoul is a long journey: an eight hour flight to Dubai, a few hours stopover in Dubai Airport, then another eight hour flight to Seoul. I did sleep a lot on the second flight though so by the time we got to Korea at around 5pm in the evening I was awake enough to go out.
Our airbnb was in the Hapjeong neighbourhood of Seoul, an area we used to hang out in a lot. Conveniently, it was a few minutes walk from our favourite Seoul bar, Tribe, so after grabbing a quick dinner of samgyubsal, we headed to Tribe for a few drinks. Nostalgia overload. Paul and I actually discovered Tribe completely accidentally when we were wandering around Hapjeong, saw a sign for it and decided to pop into the nearest place for a drink. Like many Korean bars, Tribe is buried at the bottom of a nondescript office block which made it so much more of a pleasant surprise when we opened the door to see a very un Korean bar; dark and cosy with comfy sofas, walls covered in posters and trinkets, and decent music playing. We’d had many a good night in Tribe when we lived in Korea so along with Brian, we lingered over our drinks and reminisced about times past.
The next day, Friday, the three of us headed over to Itaewon. Itaewon is the area of Seoul where all the Western foreigners hang out, mainly due to its close proximity to the US military base. Itaewon is kind of tacky; it’s full of American style bars which get pretty rough at night and stalls selling tat, but it was always a good area to go for a drink and a non Korean meal. It was also home to two shops which were saviours when we lived there: the second hand foreign bookstore and the foreign food mart where you could buy American chocolate, foreign toiletries and actual hummus.
City Hall and Gwanghwamun Square
After Itaewon, we headed over to City Hall. If there was a big gathering in Seoul it would tend to happen at City Hall. We watched South Korea play in the World Cup in 2010 along with thousands of others there which was an incredible experience. After taking a few pics, we wandered over to Gwanghwamun Square. I always thought Gwanghwamun Square should be marketed as Seoul’s most iconic image; the statue of King Sejong with the mountains in the background is so striking. So I was disappointed to find a tv screen had been planked right in front of the statue, obscuring the view!
We then got a train from Yongsan station back to Suwon, a town half an hour outside Seoul. As Brian lived in Suwon, and Paul and I stayed not too far outside, we had spent a lot of time there in our two years in Korea. We visited Swoyambu, our favourite Indian restaurant, and tried to find a bar we’d spent a lot of time in but discovered it was closed. Our Korean friend Jung-young met up with us and we spent the evening in a darts bar playing darts. We then went up to Sam Ryan’s, a bar popular with ex pats that we were previously indifferent to; when we lived there it was a decent bar but tended to be frequented by obnoxious western foreigners. On our visit this time round we discovered the latter hadn’t changed and I had one of several reminders of the negative sides of living in Korea.
Paul has recently got really into record shopping so on Saturday he was keen to visit Mmm Records, a record shop in Hannam that opened after he left. As he browsed the records, I went up to the rooftop bar and took pics of the brilliant view of Namsan Tower.
After Mmm Records we headed over to Ikseon-dong, an area that didn’t have much when we lived there but is now filled with cafes, bars and restaurants. It was a pleasant area to wander around as it is made up of hanoks, traditional Korean buildings which are low with curved, ridged ceilings. We wandered round the narrow lanes between the hanoks and came across a few Korean celebrities filming (we had no idea who they were but everyone around us was freaking out. Pics above).
Paul then went to a football game and I went back over to Mmm Records to take some photos of the view from the rooftop at night. I then met Brian at Noksapyeong and after taking some photos of Namsam Tower, we went to a bar in Haebanchon, a street in Noksapyeong. When we lived in Korea, Haebanchon, and Noksapyeong in general, was one of the best places to hang out in as a lot of western foreigners lived in the area and there were some good bars and restaurants. This still seemed to be the case but there were loads more bars from when we were there and whole new streets buzzing with nightlife. Paul came back from his football game and the three of us, along with our friend Sean, deliberated for a while about where to drink before settling for a classic – a table outside a GS25 convenience store with beers bought inside the shop. Man, this is definitely one of the things I miss about Korea the most. Spending the evening sitting outside a convenience store and popping back in to buy more beers.
On Sunday Brian flew back to Tokyo, where he now lives, and Paul and I headed to an area called Hwaseong just outside Seoul which is where we lived for our two years in Korea. In our first year we lived in a place called Byeongjeom and in our second year we lived in Baran which was 45 minutes away and more rural. Going to Hwaseong was purely a nostalgia trip for us; we visited our old apartments and wandered around our local neighbourhoods. Being in the places we used to live in brought back the reality of day to day life in Korea, where we got the bus to school in the morning, where we would go for dinner. It didn’t make me miss it.
Traditional Korean Meal
On Sunday night we met our Korean friend Jun-young and his wife Seong-young. Jun-young and Seong-young had actually stayed with us as part of their honeymoon in Glasgow last winter so it was great to see them again. They took us to a traditional restaurant in Seoul where you sat in the floor and cooked kimchi stew in a pot in the centre of the table and spooned it out onto your own plates. The Korean dining experience is just brilliant – it tends to be communal with everyone sharing the same food (samgyubsal barbecue being the most notable one).
Monday was our last day in Korea. There were tons of things we could have seen and done so we had to prioritise how we wanted to spend our day. First, we went over to Cheonggyecheon, a stream in the centre of Seoul which has a pretty walkway on either side.
After we left Cheonggyecheon we went to an area called Seongsu-dong. A few months ago I saw a Lonely Planet article entitled “10 of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now” and was astonished to see Seongsu included – it was completely non descript when we lived there. In the article, Seongsu-dong was described as the “Williamsburg of Seoul” with “abandoned warehouses and factories that have been transformed into cafes, restaurants, galleries and independent shops.” When we visited for ourselves, we saw all the hipster ingredients there: warehouse cafes with exposed brick walls, expensive artisan coffee, and absolute aching hipsters, adjusting their carefully curated outfits as they posed for the perfect Instagram pic. As I’ve commonly found in Korea though, the attention to hipster detail wasn’t quite there. The music playing in the coffee shop we went to? Ed Sheeran.
For me, Gangnam is the area of Seoul that looks most like how you picture an Asian metropolis with rows and rows of neon lights. Of course, after we left Korea, Gangnam became familiar to a large percentage of the world population after the K-Pop song “Gangnam Style” exploded on to the world stage. On our last night, Paul and I wandered around Gangnam and took the lights, the noise, the buzz and the chaos. There’s now a little tribute to Gangnam Style and its singer, Psy, in the form of a sculpture of him on the main street doing that famous dance.
After we left Gangnam, we headed to Banpo Bridge which is famous for its water and light show. Several times a night, both sides of the bridge sprays jets of water and light to music. We saw it when we lived in Korea and I remembered it being very impressive. Unfortunately this time one side of the bridge, the side with the good view, wasn’t working! We went over to the other side but it didn’t look as good.
Paul and I ended our time in Korea with perhaps our most eagerly anticipated Korean experience – a noraebang. If you’d said to us before we moved to Korea that we would willingly spend our evenings singing karaoke in a private room I would never have believed you (if you’d told me Paul would willingly sing karaoke in a private room I’d have believed you even less). Singing in a noraebang is not like karaoke in the UK where you get up in front of a pub full of people to sing – it’s a private room with low lights, a microphone that echoes, Korean beer, crisps that taste like plastic, and a battered songbook filled with cheesy classics. The noraebang is not an opportunity to do your best impression of Whitney Houston (the echoing microphone ensures your singing pretty much always sounds terrible) but to pick the best singalong and belt it out with your friends. When you’re in a noraebang, the outside world doesn’t exist. Paul and I only intended to go in for one hour but stayed for three.
Did I wish I still lived in Korea?
We had a fab time in Seoul taking a trip down memory lane to see our friends, visit all our old haunts, and experience all the things we loved about Korea. I had previously written of my trepidation about how I would feel going back to the location of such a fun and adventurous period of my life; I thought I might feel a bit sad comparing it to how settled I am now. I’m relieved to say this categorically wasn’t the case. Our trip, particularly when we went back to Hwaseong where we lived, brought home the reality of day to day life in Korea which has its struggles (like everywhere else). Last week I had a wonderful time experiencing my old home in what for me is the best way – as a tourist.