Chi Hoa

With its vibrant mix of old and new, Seoul is a great place to discover the soul of Korea

Banpo bridge rainbow fountain show

Past and present

Rather than book a tour, I arrived in Seoul full of excitement and uncertainty after my long journey. Despite having quizzed other visitors, I felt somewhat overwhelmed upon entering this new city and culture.

My first stop was the ancient village of Hanok, famous for its traditional Korean residences near vast Gyeongbokgung Palace. Making my way through narrow alleys, I at last reached Ohbok Hanok, a lovely little house with a wooden entrance, a courtyard and a room with sliding doors and underfloor heating beneath its wooden floors. My host, Junsu, eagerly gave me a map of the area and pointed out must-visit sites near his home. I was excited to see lovely shops selling handicrafts.

Kalbi Jjim, braised short ribs

After a few clumsy attempts, I got used to the subway, an easy way to access all corners of this huge city. The metro system was constructed in the 1970s yet is very convenient with 18 modern fast tracks connected to major department stores and trading centers. From the old village where I was staying, it was only two stops to vibrant food courts and shopping centers.

The “Sleepless City”

By day, the juxtaposition of Hanok Village and Gyeongbokgung Palace and Seoul’s futuristic cityscape kept me enthralled. After dark, the city’s nightlife was beyond my wildest imagination. My friend Huong Quynh introduced me to the leisure pursuits of young Koreans.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza at night looks like a spaceship

Our first stop was the shopping mecca of Myeong-dong in Jung-gu District, a hub for Korean cosmetics and clothing brands. It seemed like every street had at least one store of the same brand. I was surprised to find the streets packed with beautiful local youngsters and visitors, all of whom seemed to be pulling suitcases of different sizes. They must be veteran shopaholics. It was easy to find food stands selling tokbokki or smoked hot fish balls to warm up the fresh and breezy evenings.

 I thought that all stores shut by 9pm, but it was close to 10pm when Huong Quynh took me to the Lotte Fitin Mall to join an endless flow of young people eagerly pulling their suitcases. While the office towers were dark, the shopping area was fully lit and packed with people. It was impossible not to shop. When in Rome…

From the mall I could see Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a venue for art exhibitions and large events. With its undulating design and the dim golden glow of reflective metal pieces, the DDP looked like a spaceship. Deep inside the compound was a lawn lit up by thousands of artificial roses. This extraordinary site was included in the New York Times’ list of the “52 destinations to be in 2015”.

Local favorites

My Korean friend Hyewon took me out to enjoy Chimaek, or beer and chicken, which is very popular among young Koreans. We took the subway across the Han River and arrived at a store at the foot of Banpo Bridge. Although it was late at night, the restaurant was crowded with groups of happy young people admiring the river and enjoying their favorite snack: a box full of crispy fried chicken and cans of cool beer.

Noryangjin fish market

Anyone who enjoys a barbecue will love the Noryangjin Fish Market. The seafood species on offer range from the common to the bizarre, including giant octopuses strange fish kept alive in buckets. Fresh octopus is cut into pieces and served still wriggling on your plate. King crabs are also available. Follow the locals and enjoy delicious king crabs in a restaurant right beside the market.

Noryangjin fish market

Hyewon took me for a stroll beside Cheonggyecheon Stream, which flows across the city. Flanked by thick trees the clear river is an oasis of serenity in this bustling and modern city. Here and there the stream is decorated with colorful ornaments to add excitement.

My short visit to Seoul left me feeling nostalgic, which means I must soon return to this exciting city.