After the great emotion of going back to Kut-O, those sisters who had made the trip to Hong Kong and myself decided to have a mini-break during our holiday to Seoul. The reasoning was quite simple: We would only have a few days at best before we all returned to our respective homes and that wasn’t really enough time to go to other places like other major cities in China, or Japan. I did briefly toy with the idea of going to Taiwan or Vietnam, but as soon as H suggested Seoul, I was pretty much sold. It’s well documented how much I love Korean food and it turns out that it’s not just me – Most of my family do too. Plus there was the fact that one of H’s best friends who is Korean and regularly goes back to Seoul to visit her in-laws, was going to be in Seoul at the time and kindly offered to be a local guide to us all. Well, how could we refuse? So, a suitable package was found for us all and we excitedly booked ourselves a short trip to Seoul, looking forward to our time there and our thoughts turning to how much kimchi we could eat whilst there.
Except it didn’t *quite* work out like that; For a start, I don’t think we counted on exactly how exhausting the trip to Kut-O the day before would be on us all both emotionally and physically. I’ll be honest and say that by the time it came to depart for Seoul, if it wasn’t for the fact that we had already paid for the trip, I would happily have stayed in HK just that bit longer. Suddenly our cunning plan to get a midnight flight so that we would arrive early morning and get more out of our time there seemed wrong when we realised that we basically would have to sacrifice sleep hours (I’m in my late 30s, sleep is important to me!). So upon arriving at Incheon Airport at 5am, we were all sleep-deprived, so humour took a running leap whilst we were on the plane flying over it seemed. Incheon Airport was voted the World’s Favourite/Best Airport and perhaps it was because it was 5am and the staff too, suffered from a lack of a sense of humour, but all the signs were in Korean (no other languages at all) and at Passport Control, it would appear that along with no sense of humour, the staff there were quite austere and *any* kind of mistake or non-compliance in the completion of the Immigration Form would result in you being given a new form and sent to the back of the (very long) queue. Seriously, there wasn’t any danger of any of the staff having a muscular spasm which may have resembled something close to a smile. So you can imagine my panic when I realise that I didn’t have my hotel details on me… Fortunately, YKL (ultra efficient and organised person that she is) did have the details and I managed to get through Passport Control without any issue. Bags collected, we headed out the airport to get transport to the hotel.
Reading all the blurb about getting to your hotel from the airport, there is a lot of talk about “Airport Limousines” which take you directly to your hotel from the airport. They’re pretty cheap (KRW 12,000 which is about £7) so it all sounded quite good. Until we got there and found that these Airport Limousines were actually coaches, and not particularly plush coaches either. Added to this, we couldn’t actually find the exact coach to get – We could find the coach numbers either side of the one we needed but not the one we actually needed. It was then we were approached by a Korean guy offering to be our taxi directly to the hotel. S wasn’t too happy to go with it from a security perspective and she would be right – But we were all a bit too tired, bitter and emotional to talk it through rationally. I guess the rest of us were thinking that whatever gets us directly to the hotel the fastest is fine by us and didn’t think/care of any possible dangers and consequences. So in we all got into the SUV and we set off from Incheon Airport to our hotel in Gangnam.
As we were driving on the motorway, the scenery was quite spectacular – Rural Seoul is a beautiful place and perhaps it was because we were so tired and emotional, but the fact that we went from darkness to Sunrise on our journey made it all the more pleasurable. Seriously, I’d never seen a Sunrise where the Sun was so big and orange before and it was absolutely gorgeous. Then, we hit traffic on the motorway, and I don’t mean it was busy, I mean that we were practically crawling along the motorway and I’m pretty sure that the driver switched off the engine more than once because we were stationary for such long periods. It was quite bizarre – I could see one of the most gorgeous Sunrises in my life in the distance, yet I was in stationary traffic.
All of us managed to catch a bit of shut-eye along the way so pity the poor driver having 4 women snoring whilst he’s stuck in stationary traffic! But the delay was such that what should have been a 50 minute journey ended up taking over 2.5 hours, so the hotel was a welcome sight for us all. We checked in (again, not a hint of a smile from the hotel staff in reception) and headed to our rooms. The hotel itself (the Seoul Mercure) was actually really nice – Modern, nice facilities and BIG LCD TV (Samsung, of course) and our view was on downtown Gangnam. Resisting the urge to collapse into bed straight away, H, YKL and myself went on the hunt for some breakfast. There was no chance we were going to eat in the hotel (Buffet breakfast was KRW28,000 which is about £17) so the 3 of us decided to head out to see what was nearby; I can tell you now that there are a LOT of coffee places in Gangnam – Within a 5 minute stroll in any direction from the hotel, there were at least 3 coffee places. In looking at places open, there was only really one place which appealed to us so we took the plunge and walked in.
The place was empty bar 2 businessmen sitting on a table (it was after 9am at this point so most people would have gone to work by now) and looking around, we tried to find a menu that wasn’t in Korean whilst searching our collective brains for whatever Korean foods we knew. We knew… Bibimbap and Kimchi jjigae which were ordered before H gestured over at the 2 businessmen to ask what they were eating, “Udon” was the word we heard and all 3 of us collectively went “Oooh! UDON!” so that was ordered too before the woman walked off and came back with a laminate which had an English menu on it. Oh the relief! Looking at the menu, it was quite pigeon english but you could figure out what things were, we recognised the udon noodles and bibimbap (rice mixed with assorted mixture in hot stone pot) but was quite intrigued by the rice rolled in laver. Pointing at the item in the menu, our server said “Kimbap” Yes! Kimbap – I recognised that word too – We’ll go for a veggie kimbap please. Order eventually placed, we waiting for the food to arrive. Whilst waiting, I noticed that it was place was run and staffed only by women – Some of them really strong and lifting massive 10Kg nets of onions, but it kind of gave me a sense of calm to know that it was an all female kitchen.
The food pretty much arrived all at once and perhaps we were more hungry than we realised but it was seriously good food. I know it’s a cliché to say that food is always better in the native country, but this was seriously good Korean food. However, I have to single out special praise for the kimbap. yes, you could just call it a cheap futomaki roll, but this humble “rice rolled in laver” was so much more than that – warm, soft and fluffy rice (with a hint of seasoning?), crisp fresh vegetables and pickles, toasted seaweed which was full of umami rather than just salt, all rolled together so that when you ate it, it was soft and tender from the rice and seaweed, then got a crunch of the vegetables. It was so good that we promptly ordered another kimbap to share. This was only an equivalent to a local cafe, but the home-cooked food was seriously good – And not a microwave in sight. Cafes in the UK could learn a thing or two. What’s more, this place was open 24hrs so later that evening when Q and I felt a bit peckish, I knew exactly where to go for the perfect snack…
And well, no post from me would be complete without mentioning the food; I already touched on how good our breakfast meal was but all throughout my trip, I got to eat some VERY good food – Which has only served to make me like Korean food even more. I should also point out that H’s friend, Mia was invaluable to our trip and I know that we wouldn’t have been able to eat half as well as we did if she wasn’t with us. From taking us to the best Food Hall where there were aisles of kimchi which could be vac-packed to make it easier to take onto a plane, to taking us to Namdaemun Market initially to try some mandu which were really famous (from Kamegol) but weren’t quite to our tastes, but the vegetable japchae hodduk from another market stall were so good that I’m still looking for a recipe now. I mean, there were crispy on the outside, the japchae inside was savoury but there was still a bit of the sweet filling as with a traditional hodduk which contrasted with the savoury japchae… If you ever get to Namdaemun Market, head to Gate 5 and get the vegetable japchae hodduk there. You won’t miss it – There’s constantly a long queue.
Dinner on my last night in Seoul was quite possibly the best meal of my entire trip, not in terms of the most delicious, but the sheer scale of the food which came out of the kitchen that night exemplifies everything that Korean food should be, but is sadly very wrong in this Country when you go to a Korean restaurant. You see, a traditional Korean meal is the main dish (say, bulgogi) and you usually eat it with some rice, there will be a stew (jjigae) or soup of some sort and accompanying banchan (panchan). Banchan can consist of kimchi, a stir fry (with and without sauce) of some sort, a steamed dish of some sort and or something pan fried. It can be anything, but the point is that the banchan is to accompany the main dish and can be topped up should the dish be finished before the meal has ended and most importantly – It doesn’t cost any extra. These dishes are accompaniments so you shouldn’t have to pay extra for it. So when a restaurant here in the UK charges you extra for the banchan or for kimchi or even worse, for the lettuce and sauce to go with your BBQ, I think they’re taking the piss, somewhat.
The restaurant Mia took us too was literally hidden in an alleyway and again, it was all in Korean (without any pictures) and if it weren’t for Mia, we would never have dreamed of finding, let alone going to such a restaurant. Even though it was a Tuesday evening, we had to wait a little bit because the restaurant was so busy (and there were 7 of us), but Mia was saying that the restaurant is also very popular with Businesspeople because it’s very traditional Korean food and the way they serve it is becoming increasingly rare in Seoul. I could see the side rooms with traditional floor seating and sliding doors but we were given a modern table with chairs in the centre of the main room. Ordering-wise, you were basically given 3 options: beef bulgogi, duck or pork (belly), so we ordered 2 of each for the whole table and a rice each, then sat back and waited;
The first of the banchan came out and we all had to contain our drooling, looking at the different kimchi and other bowls of delectably looking foods came out and were placed at one end of the table. The next round of banchan followed quickly and was placed at the opposite end of the table so whilst the table was filling up, there was still a bit of a gap in between the 2 ends which were now covered by assorted bowls of banchan.
Then the mains came out, along with a ddukbaegi of rice for each of us, then the jjigae came out (which was still part of the banchan) and yet more banchan came out. I jokingly said that they wouldn’t stop until the whole table was covered but it turned out to be true; I kept thinking that we couldn’t find much more onto the table but bowls and dishes were moved, the tissues and water bottles were completely removed from the table to make more room for the banchan. When they had finished, the entire table top was covered in dishes and bowls of food:
The food was absolutely delicious and what’s more, each banchan dish would be refilled if you finished it before the end of the meal, so we had several refills of the japchae because it was so damned tasty. I probably enjoyed the various banchan more than the mains – And that’s not to say that the mains were bad! The duck was slightly smoked and tender, the beef bulgogi was again, better than you could get here in the UK and well, who doesn’t like a bit of belly pork?. There were plenty of foods which I had no idea what they were or how they were prepared, but it made me realise that whilst I know a fair bit about Korean food, there’s still so much more to be learned about it – But I was loving this whole experience. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had an early flight the following morning (and nobody else was drinking), I would imagine this meal would have been ideal for drinking Sochu with. I honestly cannot tell you where this restaurant is in Seoul, but I can wholeheartedly recommend going to a place which offers a proper banchan parade dinner like this place did. I’ve stuck a photo of the sign outside so if anyone who reads Korean and let me know, I’d happily post the details of this place – More people need to experience a meal like we all did that night
Seoul itself is a beautiful city; you can see how much pride they take in their history with the various palaces, yet the City and South Korea as a country are advancing at breakneck speed with technological advances – Led by Samsung. But therein creates some paradoxes and contradictions; For instance Seoul was the only place on my travels this time where I could freely get a wi-fi signal wherever I went – From the major shopping centres to local cafés, yet when I stepped out into the street I’d see telegraph poles with a jungle of cables rather than all the cables being underground. The City is almost modernising quicker than the infrastructure can keep up with – More and more people are owning cars yet there are only 1 or 2 major freeways to travel in and around the City – Hence stationary traffic at sunrise, and even though there are 7 lanes of traffic in the City Centre, traffic is still stationary during rush hour. However, the people are friendly (well, apart from those in Passport Control and my hotel’s reception) and there’s plenty to see and do – Especially if like me, you go during Autumn so get to see some beautiful Autumnal colours on trees. I was greatly amused at how you could get a card from our hotel with a line in Korean saying “Please take me back to my hotel” along with the address. YKL and I joked that it probably said “I’m yet another silly foreigner lost in your beautiful City, please take me to this hotel.”
Back at Incheon Airport, my last view of Seoul was of the Sunrise meaning I got to begin and end my little Seoul adventure with the Sunrise. There was so much we didn’t get to see and do because of our short time there and I would happily go back to Seoul, this time for a bit longer. My trip may have been brief, but I got to spend some quality time hanging out with my family, which was really cool. I got to do a fair bit and eat really well, what more could you ask for from a holiday?
You can view the full set of photos on my Flickr page