When I first arrived at Incheon International Airport, I immediately observed countless Asian stereotypes: there was a woman taking selfies on her phone with a purpose built telescopic handle; a well organized, efficient, and clean moving walkway system; a large Asian tour group following a flag held in the air; lots of bright, hip, and vibrant wardrobes; and a seafood smell in the air that I could not quite place. All I could think to myself was “South Korea, it is nice to finally meet you!”
The customs and arrival process was painless on my Canadian passport and the immigration officer was very genial and welcoming, a rarity in my travels. I followed the signs from the airport to the express train station, where I easily purchased a ticket out of a machine with an English language option and boarded the 40-minute express train into Seoul for 3,850 KRW (US$ 3.60). I had booked into the Grape Garden Guesthouse which was in the area of Hongik University, meaning I did not even have to transfer trains to get to my stop. I was quite tired from my 11 hour Vancouver to Seoul flight so after arriving at the Grape Garden and checking in, I immediately climbed into bed in my 6-bed dorm and slept the night away.
The Grape Garden Guesthouse is extremely welcoming and is essentially a family home converted into a hostel. When I woke up in the morning, I had a quick shower in what would be a standard house washroom (but with a typical Asian electronic toilet seat), made a coffee, and relaxed in the living room while working on my laptop. I love being away from home but still feeling comfortable as though I am at home and that is exactly what the Grape Garden Guesthouse offers. I had pre-organized my USO/Koridoor DMZ tour and had to be at the USO office by 11am so just before 10am I made my way back to the Hongik University MRT station to make my way to the Samgakji station for my tour. The MRT terminal was basically empty when I arrived and I was approached by an older Korean man who clearly wanted to practice his English. We chatted for some time and I asked him if he was on his way to work to which he chuckled loudly and responded that he was 78 years old and no longer had to work! I thought he looked 50, but I guess that just reaffirms another stereotype about Asians not aging. He was headed in the same direction as I was so he helped me find my way to my next train and told me when to get off. The Seoul MRT system is incredibly user friendly but I still appreciated his help. I think my favourite part of the MRT is that when you buy your tickets it remembers what language you purchased your ticket in and when you scan your ticket at the terminal exit the machine would say “Thank You” to me in English and I am sure Korean, Chinese, or Japanese to those who purchased their tickets in those languages.
The USO tour of the DMZ and JSA was absolutely great and you can read all about it, and my brief synapses of the Korean War and subsequent history of South Korea and North Korea, on my blog post here.
After the tour I returned to my guesthouse using the MRT and had to use the washrooms on the way. Normally I would not mention such a trivial matter, but the MRT washroom was so clean and well-kept that I have to pay a compliment to Seoul. I have never seen a public washroom that nice before and it could easily have been mistaken for the washroom of a 5-star hotel. Bonus points to you Seoul – well done!
At the guesthouse, Luna, one of the staff, was offering to take a group of hostel guests out for Korean BBQ. Although I had just eaten on the DMZ tour and was not at all hungry, I thought it was a great opportunity to experience a proper local Korean BBQ place. The Hongik University area is filled with bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and clothing stores and it is definitely a wonderful place to eat, drink, and shop. Once we arrived at the restaurant, a staff member brought over a large bag for us to place our jackets in so that they would not smell like Korean BBQ after the meal. I just can’t get over how wonderfully thoughtful, respectful, generous, and efficient Koreans are!
Luna did the ordering for us and we got bowls of kimchi, samgyeopsal (thick bacon), and a number of banchan (side dishes) for dipping and eating the samgyeopsal with. Even though I was already stuffed, I could not help but try every possible combination of bacon and banchan possible. It was absolutely delicious and therefore I gad no shame in my gluttony. For drinks, we enjoyed traditional soju, an alcohol traditionally made from rice, wheat, and barley. If you have not tried it, soju is sort of like vodka, but slightly sweet, somewhat similar to Japanese sake. Luna taught us a few Korean drinking traditions and she poured the soju starting with the eldest at our table and ending with the youngest. The main rules to soju are to never pour your own drink and to not refill your glass until it is empty. The glasses are small and even though we followed the rules we still managed to get through a couple of bottles.
I have read that South Koreans drink the most liquor of anyone worldwide, averaging 13.7 shots per week, which is 2x more than in Russia and 5x more than in Canada! Apparently, they drink fast because they want to get drunk fast – South Korean efficiency at work? The soju certainly loosened the lips of Luna and the other hostel guests which led to some great stories of their previous travel adventures. Luna had spent two years traveling South America and around a year living in Vancouver so both her English and Spanish were excellent and it was pretty cool she could keep up her ‘international lifestyle’ while at home by working at the hostel on the side.
The next morning a group of us hung out and watched the Sochi Winter Olympics on the TV while I drank coffee and did some work. As I only had one day to sightsee in Seoul I struggled to figure out exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do in the city as there is just so much to see and do. Realizing that I would definitely be back in Seoul again given how much I was enjoying the city and the people, I decided to continue where I left off from the previous day’s DMZ tour and head to the War Memorial of Korea, also known as the Korean War Museum. When I first arrived at the Museum I was awestruck and inspired. It is an amazing building surrounded with sculptures and displays memorializing the Korean War. Surrounding the War Memorial are dozens of aircraft, artillery, rockets, tanks, and telecommunications equipment from the Korean War as well as other conflicts that Korea has subsequently been involved in. I have never seen such an impressive display in my life and I spent nearly an hour just walking amongst the military equipment taking photos.
Luckily, I entered the actual museum, which is free, at 1:55pm and found out there was complimentary English speaking tour at 2pm – perfect timing! Our volunteer guide, Chang Kyu Wan, was a young teenager when the Korean War broke out and therefore he was not conscripted, but he still remembers much of the war. When the North Korean army pushed south his family was caught behind their front lines on the North Korean side. Luckily, when the Americans pushed the North Koreans back to the North, he and his family were loaded on to an American truck and brought further South where they lived until the conflict ended. He was very knowledgeable about the Korean War and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that he was able to highlight the key displays of the museum to me in only 1.5 hours. The museum is absolutely massive and I imagine it would be easy to spend an entire day aimlessly wandering the many exhibits.
The museum is great in that it has many interactive and entertaining displays that kept me engaged, including 3D and 4D movies, a shooting range, and cinema. As part of the tour we watched one 4D movie about a difficult retreat of the allies in the Korean War, where they had to push through terrible cold and snow with few supplies. While the 3D movie played, cold air and snow blew into the theater making it hit home how horrendous of an experience it must have been for the soldiers. After the tour, I also went to a very well done 3D fighter jet movie which had been quite terribly subtitled in English (adding comedic value for me) and I also gave the shooting range a try.
The Korean War Museum is definitely one of the most interesting museums I have visited in the world and I am extremely happy I went, especially given the fact entrance is free. When I finally left, after more than 4 hours exploring the Memorial facilities, I made my way back to the guesthouse to try and recruit a group for a night out in either the Gangnam or Hongik University area. There is a Big Rock pub (Big Rock is a small brewery from Alberta, Canada) in Gangnam that I really wanted to visit, but after learning it would take 40-60 minutes to get there from Hongik University, I decided it was better to explore the Hongik area’s nightlife instead.
Eduardo, a Mexican student who moved to Seoul to study Industrial design, and I went for a chicken and beer dinner at a restaurant conveniently named “Chicken & Beer”. From there, we wandered around looking for an affordable pub to have a few drinks. It seemed like many of the bars were more set-up for the late night clubbing crowd and that their drink menus revolved around bottle service, which was a bit intense for us so early in the night. We finally found a bar called Sketch Bar which was owned and operated by a friendly South Korean who had grown up and studied in New York. Sketch Bar had a beer pong table set-up so we began our evening with a game of beer pong, followed by a few more drinks and several games of darts on an electronic dart board. From there, we heard that a busy expat bar conveniently named Thursday Party Bar given it was a Thursday night and we were looking for a bar to party in. Thursday Party Bar was packed with both foreigners and locals and Eduardo and I once again got on to the beer pong table for a round against some locals. A few of the ‘house rules’ were new to me, but it was a fun time and I enjoyed being able to party with South Koreans who just further proved how kind, friendly, and positive they are. After the Thursday Party Bar began to die down, we headed to a basement club which was essentially hosting a Korean rock concert. It was good to see what an underground Korean rock club looked like, but I must be getting old as I also found it loud and crowded so I called it a night and went back to the dorm for some much needed rest before my earling morning flight to Hong Kong the next day.
Seoul is a magnificent city and it has probably become one of my Top 10 favourite “Big Cities” in the world. There are tons of things to see and do; the transportation is cheap, clean, and efficient; the people are friendly, honest, and helpful; and South Korea has an amazing history which provides plenty to learn about and understand. I would highly recommend visiting Seoul and learning about South Korea’s history if you have the chance – I truly hope to return for another visit myself in the near future.