Photo Credit: denAusuncioner
Koreans are stereotyped as some of the hardest working people on Earth. There is definitely some truth to that. I’m an American expat who teaches English. I’ve been living and working in South Korea for just under a year. It’s hard not to notice the differences in work expectations here in Seoul. My elementary school students go to school for as long as 10-12 hours a day and are expected to learn material covering an intensely wide range of topics. This kind of work ethic doesn’t stop once they graduate. Many Korean businesses require long hours and a workload that most westerners would have a panic attack just thinking about. That being said, Koreans are the epitome for the expression “Work hard, play hard.”
Where should I go?
As a New Yorker, I have uniquely high expectations for nightlife. I came of age in a city where international DJs are a dime a dozen. In New York, velvet ropes and bottle service on a Wednesday night are commonplace. That being said, the Hongik University district in Seoul, does not disappoint. The Hongik University district is better known as Hongdae and is akin to the West Village in New York City.
During the day, it’s known for delicious street food, for a few thousand won you can find a wide variety of snacks and treats. One of my favorites is the Tornado Potato. It’s a glorious cross between a French fry and a potato chip. It’s a spiral cut potato put on a stick, deep-fried and coated in a dry seasoning of your choice. I definitely recommend the cheddar and garlic. You really just can’t go wrong with greasy fried potatoes covered in cheese. Grab an ade to go with it. Ade is a fruit drink similar to lemonade. It’s made from a mixture of fruit juice and lemon lime soda with fresh fruit. You can add a little kick of rum, vodka or soju for an extra charge.
Once you have your snack to go along with it and head over to my favorite part of Hongdae, simple known as “the park” or sometimes “Hongdae Music Park”. At night, Hongdae becomes a beacon for youth culture. It’s really just a square of concrete with some playground equipment and tons of graffiti. It’s the kind of place that most westerners would shy away from after dark. However, that’s simply not the case in Korea. At night, it turns into an impromptu amphitheater for talented young musicians looking for their big break. I recently spent an incredible night hanging out in the park listening to one performance after another. The first was a rap battle between two hip-hop artists. They were each perched on one side of the playground equipment catering to the crowd who “ooohhed and boooed” on queue. Not long after the battle ended, a young woman with an acoustic guitar and an incredible range found herself with an audience of several hundred people. Honestly, it’s hard to believe that some major record label hadn’t snapped her up.
Letting your hair down
Walking down the street, you see signs of the cultural divide between the millennial generation and their parents everywhere. Korea is still an extremely conservative society; things that are normally considered taboo in Korea are openly displayed in Hongdae. You see tattoo parlors, bare shoulders and same gender couples holding hands. Some people come to Hongdae to gawk, but most come to celebrate a freedom that is only found in a handful of neighborhoods through out the country.
Interestingly, despite its social conservatism, nightlife is just as much a part of Korean culture as Kimchi and Hoboks. Koreans tend to work so hard that they have limited opportunity for social connections, so when the chance arrives to let loose and have a good time, Seoulites are all in. Unlike in many western countries, binge drinking is an integral part of career networking and often times considered mandatory for a career climbing young person.
The last time I went out in Hongdae, it was 4am on a Saturday night and the park was filled with folks of various levels of intoxication. I watched a man in his 40s wearing a business suit, doing pushups while throwing up. His buddy was counting for him and refused to let vomit get in the way of his friend’s performance. You’re in for quiet the show as you watch people stumble out of the bars and towards the street food stalls. The later you stay in the area the wilder the show will get.
The 4 Rounds
Nightlife in Korea is a full evening of food, drinks and venue hopping. Cha, or rounds are a semi-structured system for evening events. Everyone has their own ideas of exactly what the different stages of Cha entail, but after having my fair share of nights on the town I can give you a loose idea. In a neighborhood like Hongdae you might experience Cha in this order:
- Dinner and Drinks
Most Koreans start out with Korean BBQ for dinner. Each table offers a grill and a plate of meat for your feast along with numerous side dishes. Your meal will also be paired with copious amounts of soju. Soju is hard liquor but is served like water in Korea. Don’t be surprised if you’re encouraged to “One Shot” a whole cup. If you’re trying to take your time building your buzz, mix your soju with some maekju (beer) to make “so-maek“.
- Drinks and snacks
This round will move you to a local bar or hof. Here you’re expected to both snack and drink. During the second round, you’re usually at a more casual bar. This is where the folks start to really feel the buzz and let loose.
- Main party
Round three usually involves dancing and music. Also, note that this round usually starts about 1:30-2am. Hongdae is known for it’s wide variety of clubs. It is so well known that club promoters have come together to offer a month club night on the last Friday night of each month. $15 (USD) gets you one drink and admission to 11 different clubs. This round can be a one-club event or if you happen to be in Hongdae during club night can be a multi-venue round.
The 4th round is Korea’s version of Karaoke. Unlike it’s western cousin, Noraebang is singing in private rooms. Often times the rooms come with themes and high tech electronics. At this point, you’re so drunk that you have very little shame in singing to your hearts content regardless of how tone deaf you are. So go ahead… let loose.
As your night is nearing its end don’t forget to check out Hongdae Music Park for incredible street art and live street performances or the Hongdae Club Market for great deals on trendy club wear and accessories. Most importantly, enjoy yourself. Eat, drink and remember, no western club experience will ever live up to it.