Seoul’s got Soul

From Qingdao to Seoul

From Qingdao to Seoul

We took a fairly pleasant overnight ferry from Qingdao, China to Incheon, South Korea. We, as usual, opted for the lowest class ticket but were happily surprised when our 50 person room had bunk beds with curtains and partitions around each bed so everyone had privacy.

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There were a couple of wack jobs on the ferry, of course, such as a crazy American who was literally nuts. He had been in the ferry terminal two days before when we went to buy our ticket in Qingdao and was still there when we came to board the ship. He had a yellowing aged cast that looked as though it should have been removed sometime in the last decade and throughout the ferry, he screamed random things (maybe Tourets?), scribbled indecipherable notes into his notepad and as he walked by customs upon departing the ferry, declared that he “hates South Koreans” and hope “North Korea gets them good” one of these days. Awkward.

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Upon arrival, we walked over to an ATM in an Incheon E-mart which is the equivalent of Walmart in the states attempted to use it, but soon realized that ATM’s in S. Korea were going to be a big pain. Most S. Korean ATM’s are only built for use with a S. Korean credit card, not an international one so you have to hunt down specific ATM’s that are “international.” Not convenient at all. Regardless, we eventually got some money and headed to the subway station where we rode the train all the way into town. Our Couchsurfing host, Jessica was at work until 7 so we put our stuff in lockers and decided to kickstart our Seoul sightseeing. We ended up spending 10 days in Seoul, with a brief two day excursion away from the city to attend the mud festival (next post). We partly ended up spending that much time in one place because of the weather. The monsoons happen in S. Korea in July and the whole city was flooding for 3 solid days straight. Three days of bad weather without a break makes it pretty hard for travelers to motivate themselves to do anything at all, knowing that walking even with an umbrella would find them soaked to the bone in minutes. We also spent so many days in the city because we were waiting for one of our best friend’s MoonSook to arrive in S. Korea (her native country) from the states. So we stayed with Jessica (our American Couchsurfing host) for 4 nights, 2 nights in a hostel waiting for Moon and to relax Ellie’s knee (more on that in the mud fest post), and 3 nights with Bob, an American friend of Moon’s from the states. Instead of boring you with our day-to-day details, here are some of the highlights of Seoul:

Changdeokgung Palace: A gorgeous Joseon palace that we visited on the first day of our stay. It is one of the 5 grand palaces built by the Joseon dynasty. It was built in 1405 and although many of the buildings have been replaced due to fires, it’s still incredibly gorgeous and so different from the Chinese palaces. It also has one of the most beautiful “secret gardens” ever.
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The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul Grand Park: The main exhibit is one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen and done by the artist of Paik Nam June. It consisted of TV screens piled into the shape of a pagoda and small tiles and other artifacts glued on the wall for many floors. It’s simply incredible.

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Other awesome exhibits in the museum:

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He actually moves his mouth and sings, it's quite beautiful

He actually moves his mouth and sings, it's quite beautiful

Entitled "Vegetarianism"

Entitled "Vegetarianism"

Myeongdong: Basically the Oxford St. of Seoul, it’s full of department stores, boutiques and some favorite chains from back home. You can find loads of Western chains (such as California Pizza Kitchen, which you know we couldn’t resist, reminding us of back home a little). The fashion of the girls in S. Korea was different from China. The girls all wear heels, look impeccable come rain or shine and have clothes that I believe even the London girls would die for. Myeongdong was fun for a short diversion into Korean consumerism.

not sure about the Christmas tree...

not sure about the Christmas tree...

Mouthwash in the CPK bathroom!

Mouthwash in the CPK bathroom!

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Inside the subway station

Inside the subway station

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Jjimjilbangs: Upon our Couchsurfing hosts high recommendations, we checked out Dragon Hill jjimjilbang. We had no real idea what to expect, except that we heard that you can’t properly come to Korea without experiencing one of these gigantic multi-purpose spa complexes. We arrived at Dragon Hill, paid the 10,000 won it cost to enter, were given instructions in broken English and were handed a weird uniform and towel. Uh, confusing? So we went to the girls locker room and decided to watch what was happening around us. We didn’t understand if we should put the uniform which was like a big pair of PJ’s on first and then walk to the bath or if just went to the bath in the buff. As soon as we arrived in the locker room, the answer was as clear as the pale butts around us. We walk naked from the locker room down to the spa. No other women seemed to mind just stripping down to their birthday suits so we pretended like we were more confident than we were and just went with the flow. We got naked, brought our towels down to the bath with us and did the obligatory rinse-off. We realized we had no shampoo yet didn’t realize that we could buy such things at the counter in the locker room. So we just washed awkwardly with the bar of soap provided. After that was done, we hopped into the different tubs of varying temperatures, all different and supposed to do therapeutic things for your body. There were saunas, baths outdoors, cold baths, boiling hot baths and massaging baths. It was awesome. We eventually even forgot we were naked amongst a ton of strangers. I also saw a couple of hefty Korean women which were definitely the first people I’d seen who weren’t under 120 pounds and that was comforting. I imagine living in Korea or Asia for that matter, one would get a size complex because everyone is just so small in height and in weight that we constantly found ourselves feelings like bumbling giants. After we had our fill of the bath, we changed back into our PJ’s and went to explore the complex. Dragon Hill has a gorgeous outdoor swimming pool with a waterfall, a restaurant, a snack bar, unisex saunas, an ice room made out of ice, pyramid shaped saunas that burn natural materials like pine, a cinema, a gym, and a napping room. This place was amazing. I think something like this would do awesome in the US. Basically, you get off of work, but don’t feel like going home so you hit the gym, take a bath, a nap and get ready for the evening out. They even provide blow-dryers and hairspray. Loads of travelers actually just sleep here for the night because once you pay they don’t make you leave until you feel the urge. Since there’s a nap room, the travelers have some place to lay their heads in peace. I fell in love with communal bathing and jjimjilbangs and will miss this experience sorely.

Market at Jong-No 5—After the jjimjilbang, Jessica asked us if we wanted to go out for some drinks and food with some guys who run a really cool travel blog called Jet Set Zero. They basically quit their jobs in the states and spend 3 months in a new country, changing after the 3 months is over. They try to fund their habit on minimum wage jobs in each country to prove that anyone can move abroad to make their international dreams come true. It’s a pretty good concept. So Jessica, Ellie and I headed to Jong-No 5 market which has little stalls with ladies selling these delicious veggie pancakes and drinks. We all sat around one stall for a long time, drinking Makalli which is a traditional Korean drink that looks like watery milk but tastes like sweet water. It goes down fast and actually has a fair bit of alcohol in it. It was pretty good and kind of addicting. We are pancakes and chatted with the ten people in our group. We also chatted with many locals who were surprised to see a big group of Westerners in such a traditional setting. This one guy who was sitting at the stall next to us was really cute. He was about 70 and had a hat on that said in jewels “ Dressed to Kill.” He told us that he was deeply moved by Michael Jackson’s death and asked if we had watched the funeral. When we said No but asked if he did and whether or not it moved him to tears, he just replied “No doubt” with a hand over his heart. He also told Ellie that he could tell that she was a girl with a heart of gold and though he hadn’t spoken to me as much, he could tell in my eyes that I had a heart of gold as well. Then another weird guy came and maybe he was just super drunk, but kept telling us the same story 15 times, seriously. He was a broken record on repeat. We all started to wonder if it was the only story he knew in English. It entailed him living in Texas 20 years ago and being an engineer and leading a convention. Pretty soon, we all got tired of it and started egging him on. Then we watched him stumble home. Then we moved to a different stall because ours was closing and we met two other Korean men. They gave me their business card and it was all I could do to prevent myself from laughing in their faces as the card stated in red and blue lettering: “Korea National Cheerleading Association.” Ha! We then tried in our best efforts to rally everyone for some Korean karaoke but everyone else had to work in the morning so we piled into a cab back to Jessica’s. Overall, it was a really fun night out and we got to meet some very interesting fellow travelers and got to know Jessica better.

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Moon-Sook’s visit to Seoul

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We met Moon In London and she worked with me at LSBU. Since then we have been meeting up with her randomly around every 6 months or so. It always seems to work out this way and it’s a nice arrangement. We were so happy to finally be on her soil though. There is something so nice about having a native show you around and explain weird cultural customs to you that you might have otherwise mulled over for days.

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Our Hostel

We met up with her in Hyehwa where our hostel was located and Moon is the kind of person that immediately throws you into action. Before we knew it, we were in a cab on our way to Insadong (a fairly traditional area that is well-known for it’s Korean crafts and food) and then we were eating some more delicious pancakes and acorn jelly salad with Moon. Then before we knew it, she ordered a bottle of soju(Korean vodka) and we were taking shots of it at lunch. I think she was trying to overcome her jet lag and it worked. After lunch, we walked around and ate this delicious candy that is made from honey that is pulled into thousands of strings and then wrapped around nuts. The demonstration was pretty impressive.

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We headed back to Hyehwa to meet Bob, Moon’s friend from Arkansas who has been teaching in S. Korea for a few years. We put our stuff at Bob’s and then went on a small hike through the hills behind Bob’s house.

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We got to some really cool street art which was a nice change. Seoul is one city that seems to have no real graffiti or street art. I think the Koreans comply with the law a lot more than most other countries and are super obedient therefore no street art. This neighborhood was super traditional and Bob gave us a guided tour.

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After our walk, we headed to one of Bob’s favorite bars, Comfort Zone, to get a nice cold beer and we relaxed. I must inform you that South Korean beer is hideous. Just plain awful. It makes American beer look delicious and savory. With that said, we had a KGB stout and Bob treated us. Bob’s friend, Ben, also met up with us.

Comfort Zone

From there we headed to a bar called The Door Bar and it was so cute. It was one of Moon’s favorite hang-outs when she lived there. The bar snacks were delicious too. The whole bar looked like the inside of tree, very rustic and charming.

Ben, Bob, and MoonSook

Ben, Bob, and MoonSook

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One of the bar snacks we received as we drank our beers was a home-made cheese made by the owner and it was similar in texture to goats cheese and it came with candied pears. This was brilliant because in S. Korea or in Asia as a whole, hardly anyone eats cheese and if they do, it’s always something akin to Kraft singles. I hate Kraft.

Say Cheese!

Say Cheese!

After the Doors, we hit up some very delicious and authentic Korean food with some beer and soju. We enjoyed a little bibimbap which is a dish that is rice with a bunch of veggies on top such as seaweed, mountain mushrooms, etc and a raw egg that you mush around the pot until it becomes cooked.  It was so nice having Moon who was able to order for us in Korean and read the menu in fact.

We kept the night going after dinner as we made our way to the Cat bar which is very hip little hole in the wall that has graffiti and a cat. We realized though that we kept hearing different meows that weren’t coming from the cat and it wasn’t just the drink having an effect. We asked the owners and they brought out a box of kittens from under the table. They were only 9 days old and tiny. It was such a weird bar but such a good time.

At least the beer was big, even if it wasn't good.

At least the beer was big, even if it wasn't good.

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We left the Cat Bar after playing with the cats and decided to hit up a batting cage which is conveniently right in the middle of the street. I did pretty good, Moon and El did crappy, Bob did the same as me and Ben did surprisingly well hitting fast balls. After this, we played whack-a-mole, broke an arcade version of Karaoke, and rode a virtual reality ride twice.  We finally tumbled back up the hill and drank our last beer sitting on Bob’s porch overlooking the Seoul skyline.

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Bob's roof terrace

Bob's roof terrace

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The next day, Moon took us out to this special Italian place that she had been raving about. When we arrived, we understood why it was so special. The restaurant is tiny. There is only one bar and it looks into the kitchen and the one Korean chef who studied in Italy cooks in front of you. He gives out time slots and each party has one hour. It can only accommodate 3 people maximum. We ordered three dishes to share. One was scallops in a tomato cream sauce, one was shrimp in a Cajun cream sauce and the other was crab with an alfredo sauce that had FRIED GARLIC on top. The food was seriously sensational. I don’t think I’ve ever had such good Italian food ever and who knew I’d find it in Korea. If I lived in Seoul, I’d at least have to splurge and go here once a month or maybe even once a week. It was heart-stoppingly good.

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Afterwards, we had took a bus and went to one of the more financial districts of Seoul that reminded me quite a bit of NYC with it’s very tall buildings and gigantic storefronts. We stopped in Lush because Moon wanted some shampoo and we almost died when we saw the price tag. Some Lush products are going for nearly 80 USD for a small container of cream. The same one in the states or London would be about 15 USD and people were buying it up too. Nuts.

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Then we found a coffee shop where I got an iced tea and Moon and El got coffee. At this coffee shop, you get all the free bread, jam and butter you can eat along with free bar snacks and porridge, but the best part was that if you bought a drink you only had to pay 2,000 won for DR. FISH! Ellie has been wanting to try Dr. Fish forever, so we convinced Moon even though she was super apprehensive. We waited our turn and then we got our feet cleaned off and got bandages put on the wounds we incurred at the MudFest (I know you are dying to hear about that).  The only thing there was left to do was stick our feet into the pool of flesh eating fish. Freaky is all I can say. The fish feel insane and the idea that an actual animal is eating your foot is bizarre and frightening. You can actually feel the fish mouths but it mostly just feels ticklish. Sometimes I would feel a fish squish in between my toes and that would be pretty gross. Moon almost couldn’t handle it but eventually if you stop thinking about what that sensation is on your feet, you forget., kind of.

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Initial reaction to the nibbling

Initial reaction to the nibbling

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After, we headed to the Hyundae area which has the cutest clothes, really hip bars and art galleries and is probably my favorite area in Seoul. We went to a cool art gallery and art shop before meeting up with Bob, Ben and Brahm, Moon’s ex at a mussels restaurant.

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We had soju in a pineapple which was delicious and ordered a pot of mussels. For 14,0000 won you get all you can eat mussels for everyone at the table. It was nuts. The 7 of us went through about 8 pots before we gave us and hit the bars. We first went to Oi! Bar which has to be one of the cutest/strangest bars ever. Everyone has to take their shoes off and there are these weird river like formations and the whole bar is painted white and feels like you are in a warped version of Fraggle Rock.

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After a quick drink at Oi! we went to the Dada Hookah Bar where Bob knew the owner so we got the VIP room and had our own private roof balcony and private clubhouse.

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We got a bottle of wine (wine is incredibly expensive in S.Korea) so to find a bottle for 17 USD was amazing. We hung out throwing bar snacks on to pedestrians heads and just laughed a lot before we finished the evening off at….. the NORAEBANG! (which is Korean for Karaoke).

Noraebang does not mess around in S.Korea. Your group gets their own private room and drinks. You pick whatever songs you want and there are normally two microphones and a TAMBORINE! We played around for an hour, singing everything that came to mind and dancing our butts off. It was one of the my favorite times on the trip so far. After Noraebang , we called it a night and went back to Bob’s.

Private Karaoke Rooms

Private Karaoke Rooms

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We left Seoul the next day, but we want to thank both Moon and Bob for making sure we had such a wonderful time. Moon-I hope we can meet up again in another 6 months and good luck with living in S. Korea for awhile. Bob-Thanks for your hospitality and your tips for Cambodia. We miss you both already!

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4 Responses to “Seoul’s got Soul”


  1. 2 tricia September 29, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Where is the Italian restaurant. Sounds great!

    • 3 kellyandellie October 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm

      Hey Tricia! We actually have no idea how we got there (we were following our Korean friend who grew up in Seoul) and it’s not online! but it was named La Campagna. Maybe ask around? I wish we had more info, sorry!

  2. 4 Mercedes March 20, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for
    your next post thanks once again.


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