My stomping ground in Seoul is an area just one stop north from Dongdaemun market on Line 4 of the subway. It’s name is Hyehwa. I chose this area to live based on a couple of things. It is in an area of Seoul that has history, and buildings aged over 50 years that have not yet been pulled down to make way for unsightly tower blocks courtesy of Hyundai. Furthermore, there are a number of universities with campuses based in the area, and a large number of actors at the start of the careers giving the area a youthful energetic atmosphere, filled with the hope and possibility of what may be.
That is right where I am at with my own acting career and we suit one another well. Another reason why I love Hyehwa is for it’s sense of creativity. I love wandering through back streets and coming across unusual sculptures and art installations. Hyehwa has a heart. Something which many other regions of the city seem to lack.
Hyehwa has been dubbed the Broadway of Korea, owing to the 80-90 theatres within one square mile around the main thoroughfare – University Road (대학로). As a result it can get particularly busy, especially over the weekend and on holidays. In addition, on Sundays, the Filipino Market brings another crowd to the area.
Currently The Seoul Open University is extending its current campus here and Hongik is building its own fresh campus which means there will be a steady growth in the region.
Historically, before Hongik University grew to its current stature, the Hongdae area was not the main night entertainment spot north of the river in Seoul. That mantle was previously held by Hyehwa. However as youthful tastes and proclivities changed with rapid globalisation, the hip jazz bar culture of Hyehwa was abandoned for the emerging night club, live music culture of the more modern Hongdae and Gangnam areas.
Hyehwa does not generally have the space to accommodate a large club, and to my knowledge, ‘The Bunker’ is the only club in the area. Personally I prefer the smaller bar, many of which are at basement level. Many have rows of vinyl on the wall behind the bar which you can select and listen to. I call these places vinyl bars and in Hyehwa there are at least 7 that I know of.
My favourite vinyl bar has never struggled to find anything I have requested, even obscure bands like Minus the Bear. There is nothing better than having a chat in a bar with friends, drinking beer, shooting some pool and listening to your own playlist.
In addition to theatres, there is a large CGV cinema with a giant Gandalf the White sculpture outside (one of the many random sculptures scattered liberally about the area).
A final thing that Hyehwa offers is a good range of cheap food. Some of the fancier areas such as Gangnam, Apgujeong, Hongdae and the glitzier Itaewon that is emerging offer global cuisine at inflated prices. Hyehwa has seemed to keep prices reasonable so you get a great quality to price ratio. The area between exits 3 and 4 away from the main road is filled with decent Korean BBQ joints and the odd little surprise like Brazilian and Italian. The opposite side of University road are the European themed areas, with the occasional Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
Failing that, around exit 4 are the pojang machas (big tents outdoors where you can eat and drink), and a great little fish place, which is incredibly cheap, a little way out of exit 1 (take your second right turn).
Outside exit 2 of the station is Marronier Park. If you walk uphill away from University Road from there about 100 metres you will find yourself close to the old city fortress wall and a number of curious and unique little shops and boutiques.
For those who are interested in the theatre, head to the theatre information booth just behind exit 4 of Hyehwa station. There are not a great deal of English language plays, but occasionally you can find them. Hyehwa is worth a look for anybody who know Korea well and would like to experience something a little different. Come during the day and you might even witness an impromptu street performance or flash mob which are pretty common here.
When? – 24 hour area. Plenty of bars, restaurants and coffee shops are open round the clock.
Where? – Line 4 of the subway, one stop north of Dongdaemun, or 4 stops from Myeongdong. Many bus routes pass through Hyehwa.
Why? – Theatre, sight seeing, good eating and drinking, youthful atmosphere.
Every Sunday in Hyehwa, on University road (대학로), there is a large Filipino market that starts around 10 or 11am and runs until 5 or 6pm. It is a very popular local event with the large Filipino expat community, Koreans and other foreign nationals alike.
Many Koreans come out to taste authentic Pinoy cuisine at the market stalls or the small restaurants which are tucked away and go unnoticed for the rest of the week.
Filipinos come along to socialize, have a taste of home and pick up food stuffs and household that are impossible to obtain elsewhere in Korea. Things which are reminders of home mostly. The market adds a nice touch of multiculturalism to the area of a weekend.
The Wooribank at the Hyehwa Rotary here is one of the only banks in Seoul to remain open on a Sunday as this is the day they cater to foreign nationals’ needs. This could prove to be useful in an emergency cash-flow situation.
Definitely try some of the food. It is cheap and usually really good quality, although I have know a couple of people to whom it wasn’t exactly to their liking. I personally love it. For $6 you can get a big plate of food and it’s a nice change of gastronomic pace from Korean food.
When? Every Sunday from 10am – 5pm
Where? Hyehwa Station, Subway Line 4, exits 1&4 – walk straight for 100 metres upon exiting the station.
Alternatively, a large number of buses run by Hyehwa, including but not limited to, 102,106,107,140,143,171,271,272,273 and many more
One of my favourite things in Korea is the chicken van.
The chicken van man is exactly what it sounds like: a man who drives around with a van full of chickens. The key thing to point out is that the chickens are already dead, and located in the back of the van, slowly cooking rotisserie-style. The van is specially made to cook chickens. The chickens are often whole and stuffed with fried rice.
The chicken van man usually appears in the evenings, from around 6pm onward as everyone makes their way home from work. He will park in a choice location and sell out of the back of his van.
There is no one rule as to where they appear. I tend to wander around the neighbourhood and buy one if I find it. They are generally located close to but not in busy areas. Sometimes they are not far away from high streets or subway stations.
The prices don’t vary too much, but the deal you get depends on the location and the quality of the chicken. Usually the chickens are slightly anorexic, but there is always some good eatin’ on them. The lowest price will often be 4000-7000 won ($4-7) for one. The best deal I saw was 10000 won ($10) for 3 whole chickens, but you will normally get 2 whole chickens for that price, which is still a fantastic price.
The Kimbab Cheongug is a chain of Korean food restaurants across Korea offering a huge range of cheap Korean food. They are all recognizable for having orange facades with the Korean lettering 김밥 천국 out front. The range and quality of food often varies, but I usually find that eating outside of the peak busy times means better tasting food. They don’t deliver food and rarely have English menus, so it’s better to have what you want to eat in your mind when you go there. Most common Korean dishes will be served there.
The ordering process usually involved writing down what you want on a piece of paper with a list of all the dishes then handing it to one of the workers there. But the list is in Korean and I usually find that if ask somebody working there for Bibimbap for example, that will suffice.
Usually at the front of the restaurant is a small prep area where the host makes the kimbab whilst you watch, and a kitchen at the back where all other dishes are concocted. Kimbab will cost anywhere between $1.50 and $3 depending on what you want inside it. Dishes on offer cost anywhere between $2 for basic noodles and $7 for Cheese Doncasseu (pork cutlet with melted cheese inside). All orders will come with kimchi and pickled radish as a side and if you order more than just a kimbab you will get a selection of panchan. The quality and number of side dishes depends again on the place. Some are much better than others.
Not only are you always within minutes of a restaurant anywhere in all Korean towns and cities, you don’t even have to move from where you are to get a meal. If you can describe the location you are at sufficiently enough in Korean, then you can probably get a local restaurant to deliver food to you. This is inclusive of all areas accessible my a small motorcycle.
People in recreational areas such as the riverside parks along the river will often find a restaurant menu pinned to a pillar or park bench, call it and get food delivered to them, at no extra cost. If a road heads up a mountain, and you’re hungry at the top, then, within reason, you can probably get some food delivered to you.
One of the unique perks of Korea is this fantastic level of service which operates on a whole other level.
Even Pizza Hut, McDonalds and all other global fast food chains have a fleet of small delivery bikes. Often there is a minimum order price of 7000 won (about $7) for delivery. It does not bode well for anybody like me with habitually lazy patterns who wants to lose weight but can’t resist picking up the phone to get something delivered to the door.
I’m not talking about Dustin, or Philip Seymour. I’m not paying my respects in this post to David Hasselhoff either (although I probably should be doing). Nope, a hof when Korea is concerned is a watering hole, bar, public house, stank pit, cocktail lounge, tavern, rathskeller, alehouse or saloon.
When pronounced it sounds a little more like our word ‘Hop’ with a softer ‘p’. It certainly doesn’t seem like a word with Korean origins, and some stipulate that it may be named after the German Bavarian city of Hof, the Germans having helped spread lager around the world.
Whatever the origin, hofs are ubiquitous in all areas of Korea and often have the English spelling on their signs.
Most of the ones in the area where i live are located underground. In fact in most areas, you will walk down dark, often dank stairways. However the bar itself can be surprisingly chic. My area, Hyehwa, is famed as the Broadway of Seoul. As such there are a number of arty hofs, jazz hofs and record hofs. Also known as vinyl bars, the latter are by far my favourite. Along one whole wall will often be thousands of old LPs from which you may select songs which the proprietor will put on for you.
The hof is a staple of Korean life and business and in my opinion is the best place to have a bottle of soju with friends.
Okay and because I can’t help myself, on a different note, check out this video.
One of the great things about eating out in Korea is the panchan, or side dishes, that almost always accompany your meal.
The panchan is really a mini-me meal. A small offering of food that can be re-filled and accompanies the main dish. It adds colour, taste and depth to any meal.
How many you receive and how good they are depends both on what you eat and the kind of establishment you eat at. Most of the Kimbab Cheongug restaurants often provide 3-5 side dishes. My favourite one close to my house will often provide egg, some frankfurter type deal, potatoes, kimchi and maybe one other, such as soup, although that depends on what is ordered.
The side dishes are small, snack like portions. However it is totally fine to ask for a panchan re-up as a side-dish you particularly like may not last long. They are not entirely dissimilar to small portions of tapas in Spain, and are placed in the centre of the table to be shared by everyone, unless you are eating alone. Irregardless, you will get the same amount.
The one place that truly blew me away was in Gyeongju. In this area, one can pay around 10,000won ($10) per person for Ssambap. For that you get a main dish, which depends on the house special for the day. It could be pork, it could be bulgogi etc. But the best part is, you receive around 15-20 side dishes, including a number of types of lettuce to wrap the meat from the main dish in.
Back when I had just arrived in Korea, I was out having Korean BBQ with non-Korean friends. It was a pleasant evening and we were sat outside. The staff were helpful, we ate well, drank some soju and were feeling merry. The time came to pay. We made the faux pas of asking for the waitress to bring us the bill (see dining etiquette), but never-the-less they obliged despite our ignorance. Each of us paid our share and kicked in a couple of thousand won as a tip. We got up to leave and were a hundred metres down the road when a breathless waiter ran up to us. “Wait”, he shouted, “you forgot some money.”
“It’s a tip for your service”, we replied. He looked offended and thrust the money into my hands, turned and walked away.
It was only after this that I realised that leaving a tip is not customary in Korea. In fact, some may even take it as an insult because it insinuates that you believe they are more lowly than thou, and therefore more in need of your spare change. Occasionally a taxi driver may be glad not to make change of a 10000, for a 9000 fare, and of course, if you are staying in a top of the range hotel, then international staff tipping rules apply, but generally you don’t even need to feel awkward about how much to tip, because you shouldn’t leave one.