HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seoul Part 4 (of 4): Staying Indoors

Monday, my last day in Seoul, brought more sunshine and frigid temperatures. My friend Mimsie had to work so I was going off on my own, with detailed directions in hand. I took the subway to huge Yongsan station, which is near the city's American military base. Inside I noticed an older man drunkenly mumbling while sitting in a bush, an empty bottle of soju on the ground next to him. It wasn't even 11am.
After exiting the station I quickly found my destination: Dragon Hill Spa (which you can read about in a New York Times article here), known in Korean as a jimjjilbang. I had been told beforehand that I would be given a set of pajamas, but most people just go naked once inside, since that is tradition.
I paid the 10,000 won (about $10) entrance fee and was handed the aforementioned PJs and a key for both a shoe locker and a clothes locker. I stored my shoes and then found my way to the men's elevator, as the areas of the spa are segregated by gender. I arrived at the 5th floor. stepped out, and was immediately confronted with full-frontal male nudity. I knew guys would be naked, but I didn't realize they would be wandering around right outside of the elevator sans clothing.

I averted my eyes and found my numbered locker. Initially I changed into the PJs, but as I stood there I realized that, not only would I be the sole westerner in the place, but I would also be the only non-nude guy in the place. So I decided to say screw it, let's get weird. I stripped the outfit off and ambled into the bathing area. Surprisingly, given how much hairier I was then everyone in there, no one looked twice. I settled into a hot bath that I had all to myself and began to relax. After about one minute I realized how amazing this place was, and completely stopped caring about the number of exposed penises a few feet away.

I then spent some time in a sauna room before heading upstairs to the Himalayan Rock Salt sauna and some sort of special bath, the name of which escapes me. The bath was situated in the middle of a white-tiled room that would've been a perfect setting for the naked Viggo Mortensen v. bad guys spa fight in Eastern Promises. Fortunately no one came at me with a knife, and I was able to once again enjoy the hot, refreshing bath in solitude.

Once finished I dried off and went back downstairs. Weirdly, the spa also contained a video game arcade, food court, and something called an 'Indian BBQ Restaurant'. There was also a hot outdoor pool with steam pouring into the cold air, but I couldn't figure out how to get to it through the building's labyrinthine hallways, so I left. Though Dragon Hill isn't exactly the most traditional spa, thanks its flashy opulence, it's still a great place to visit in order to get an idea of how a Korean spa works.
I returned to Yongsan station and took a long subway ride that included a couple of line transfers to Coex Mall, the largest underground shopping center in Asia. The Korean World Trade Center sits atop the mall. Normally I don't really care about malls, but my goal today was to avoid the frigid temperatures, and this was no ordinary mall.
I went to Dunkin Donuts for the second time and then entered Coex. The sprawling mall contains an aquarium and a movie theater, both of which I took advantage of. The aquarium was well-presented and featured some fairly hilarious English translations on the signs that described the exhibits. There was even a manatee tank. I happened to be there at the same time as a field trip of 5 year-olds, but they were surprisingly well-behaved.
I wanted to see a Korean movie at the cinema, but none of them had English subtitles, so I ended up seeing Our Idiot Brother, starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel instead. It was an enjoyable way to kill 90 minutes in comfort.

Afterwards I headed outside to check out the area around Coex. There was some interesting architecture to see.

I was scheduled to meet up with Mimsie in a neighborhood called Hyehwa, Seoul's theater district, soon, so I went back underground for another lengthy subway ride across the city. It was during this ride that I had the strangest interaction of the trip. I had my headphones in when I noticed the Korean man standing next me trying to get my attention. I took one earplug out and said hello. His English was atrocious, but he began trying to ask me questions. Thanks to all of the practice I've had in dealing with broken English I was able to understand that he was asking about my name, where I was from, and how old I was. He said his name was Konjo, and he was 30 years old. He said I was very handsome, and motioned that the size of my nose was very good. He repeated something that sounded like 'painter', and I'm not sure if he was trying to tell me what he does, or if it was something completely different. Two seats opened so, of course, he sat down next to me and put an arm around me. He then started running a hand through my hair. I had numerous stops to go, and I was getting worried he was going to bother me the whole ride. Konjo then stood up in front of me, grabbed the handrail with both hands, and started hanging off of it, saying, 'I'm monkey'. He was basically sitting in my lap. I looked around to see if anyone was going to tell him to stop, but everyone was trying to look away. I don't mind when people try to have bizarre conversations with me, but I don't really like being touched by strangers, and I was getting annoyed. Fortunately he stopped the monkey act and began pointing at other people in the car: 'sister'...'grandmother'...(points at me) 'brother'. "Married?" "No Konjo, I'm not." It seemed like he was trying to use every word in his limited vocabulary, but was largely unable to form sentences. Then the doors opened at a stop and he got off after a quick farewell.

I reached Hyewha a few minutes later, met up with Mimsie, and walked around the neighborhood for a little while. We were looking for more of the pancakes I discussed in my previous post, but thanks to the weather few food vendors were set up. Eventually we gave up and went to a BBQ restaurant for more samgyeopsal and so-maek, the perfect combination on a frigid night.
We then went to Jazz Story, a very cool, unique music bar nearby whose scrapyard exterior isn't all that inviting. The walls inside are lined with thousands of records, and the decor manages to look both randomly thrown together and well-planned at the same time. The music was enjoyable and the setting very relaxed. I highly recommend a visit if you're ever in Seoul.

After enjoying the tunes for a little while we headed home. I got up at dawn to head to the airport, which involved a 20 minute wait for the airport bus, during which I lost all feeling in my feet. Once the bus arrived though it was clear sailing, and within 90 minutes I was at my gate, ready for my flight home.

I was really impressed by Seoul, and this was a great trip. I found that the city lacks many of the things that I dislike about Saigon, while also offering huge improvements in areas that Saigon falls short in. There's still a good chance that I'll move there next year, and as of right now the pros/cons list for the city looks something like this:

- great food
- excellent public transportation
- quiet streets
- a vibrant, diverse cultural scene
- scams are extremely rare
- Westerners don't attract huge amounts of unwanted attention
- a highly creative indigenous scene (movies, music, etc.)
- four seasons
- extremely safe; I walked around every day with an expensive camera and never once felt threatened by anything. In Saigon drive-by robberies are so common it's become almost impossible to carry anything that doesn't fit in a pocket.

- fruit is really expensive
- housing is really expensive
- it gets fucking cold 

1 comment:

  1. Glad you enjoyed your stay here in Seoul, Michael! Hope to be seeing ya around some time next year! Happy holidays!