HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seoul Part 2: The Healing Power of Soju

For some strange reason, after getting in from dinner and a drink Friday night I became violently ill, throwing up everything I had eaten that day. I had no idea why, as I really never get sick from food. I blamed it on the airline food, not what I had eaten in Seoul thus far. Anyway, the following morning I was still feeling pretty iffy. I wasn't going to let that slow me down too much though, so we got ready and headed into the now world-famous Gangnam area of the city. (Gangnam just means 'south of the river') A Korean friend of Mimsie's was getting married that afternoon in the neighborhood, and we had a few hours to kill.

Koreans can be extremely vain, and Seoul is one of the world capitals of plastic surgery. There are a few procedures that almost everyone gets, and you'll notice that many Korean celebrities look alike, since they all get the same operations. I quickly discovered that Gangnam is the center of this industry, as the subway stations in the area were plastered with ads showing 'before' and 'after' pictures. There must be a lot of people there with serious image problems.
We popped out of the underground in an upscale department store, where we discovered the animatronic polar bears pictured below being sold for an eye-watering $7,000 each. We then wandered through the supermarket so I could see what is available in Korea. I had been told that fruit is very expensive in the country, and that was no lie: one dragonfruit cost around $10, and a mango wasn't much cheaper. Those go for about 50 cents in Vietnam. There was a lot of good-looking food in the food court but, annoyingly, my stomach still wasn't right, so I got a soft pretzel from Auntie Annie's instead. It was amazing.
After that snack we headed outside and walked around the area. It was a beautiful day, but the temperatures were brutal. Overnight it had almost reached single-digits, and the sun wasn't doing much to take the edge off the frigid air.

We were in Apgujeong, a part of Gangnam that is packed with upscale boutiques and international luxury shops like Gucci and Prada. Plastic surgery clinics were everywhere. We couldn't handle the cold for very long though so we ducked into a cafe and got a couple of hot drinks before going to the wedding.

When I found out that I would be going to a Korean wedding I was extremely excited. I love seeing the customs of other cultures, and I was curious to see how this worked. Given the prevalence of binge drinking in Korea, I was expecting something similar to Vietnamese weddings, which are liquor-fueled blowouts that only end once the hardest-drinking uncle finally passes out on the dance floor. This wasn't anything of the sort.

In Korea most marriages take place at wedding halls, which are a bit like assembly lines. One wedding party has a room, the ceremony is completed in about 30 minutes, and then the next group moves in. Mimsie had told me that Korean weddings are almost like a business transaction, and mostly for show. This was right on the money, as every action was for the camera - there was an overeager photographer running around snapping shots of everything, at one point even holding his camera over the minister's head while he was speaking. The couple cut the cake, but didn't eat any of it. They each took a glass of champagne, but didn't drink any. It was only for posterity's sake. 

After the ceremony everyone trundled downstairs to eat, and this was also very carefully orchestrated. You sat at your table, and that was it, even if you didn't know anyone else around you. No one got up and walked around to other tables. No one danced, and hardly anyone drank, even though there was beer and soju on every table. People ate their allotted dishes and left. I commented that by this point in a Vietnamese wedding most people would've been smashed. (If you want an idea of what a wedding in Vietnam is like, read this.)

To be honest though I was actually somewhat glad the wedding was so sedate, as I still wasn't feeling great. Afterwards Mimsie did say that this was the most low-key Korean wedding she had been too. Even though it wasn't the most exciting ceremony, it was still nice to see, and is another experience to add to my personal list.

After the wedding we took the subway to Hongdae, one of Seoul's most popular nightlife areas. Located near a major art and design university, the neighborhood is full of hipsters, bohemians and creative types, and all of the bars, clubs and restaurants they would be interested in visiting. I suppose you could compare it to Brooklyn. Despite the freezing temperatures the streets were still packed, though I've heard that during better   weather there is street music and things like that. I don't think I saw a single person who was older than 30.
There's a presidential election coming up, and here's a campaign van.
We were in Hongdae for Santacon, which I'll get to shortly, but we still had some time to kill. Therefore we stopped by Bau House, a dog cafe that was packed with a wide variety of man's best friend.
This place was pretty wild, and definitely not something you would see in the U.S., home to an obnoxious amount of health and safety regulations. My favorite was the huge white dog pictured below, who seemed to control any dog that went off the rails.

After hanging out with the dogs for a while we stopped at a dollar store to get Santa hats. There was some awesome Engrish on display.
Santacon is held every year, and the concept is simple: dress up like Santa, get drunk. It was extremely cold out now, but the body heat of the group of Santas helped. I wasn't 100% yet, and at this point I wasn't sure how late I'd be able to stay out. Then, a girl with a bottle of soju mixed with juice appeared and gave me a paper cup of the drink. I quickly downed it and then had another. Amazingly, I instantly felt back to normal. God bless soju.
We marched over to Ho Bar III, where two completely overwhelmed bartenders did their best to satisfy the thirsty Santas. It was a bit jarring to hear Christmas music playing over strobe lights and lasers. We were joined by a Korean friend of Mimsie's and after a few drinks we went in search of food.
In our increasingly inebriated state the streets were ever harder to navigate safely, as they were full of icy patches thanks to the snow of the previous days. We found a BBQ joint, which is a requisite stop during a night of Korean drinking. We drank so-maek, beer mixed with soju; and ate delicious samgyeopsal, or fatty pork belly.

We then danced like idiots at Obec, an underground bar made to look like a cave, where a DJ spun an interesting mix of house and reggae dubstep (at least that's what it sounded like to me), before capping the night with, what else, karaoke.

Luxury Noraebang (noraebang means karaoke) is one of the most popular such establishments in Hongdae because the rooms in front have huge windows that allow patrons to look out onto the street and pretend they are serenading a huge crowd. The singing was terrible, as expected, but when you have your own private room that doesn't really matter. I had a great time, except for the moment when one of the Koreans we were with pressed 'next song' while I was about to start the most epic section of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the greatest karaoke song of all time. That grave mistake was made up for with a ridiculous 'Gangnam Style' finale, all video evidence of which has been destroyed. At this point it was 5am, so we piled into a taxi and headed home to get a few hours of sleep.

Next up, an arctic Sunday full of sightseeing.

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