Night Out in Hongdae – Modern Day Neverland

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Hongdae (홍대), named after one of the nation’s top fine arts university – Hongik University (학교) is the cradle of the indie arts and music culture. Located in Mapo-gu, the western end of Seoul, it stretches from Hongik University Station (on Line 2) to Hapjeong Station (on Line 6). The area is a vibrant and bold expression of youth and as the sun sets, it come alive – neon lights, thumping music and people flood the street. Time stands still here, a kind of modern day Neverland to escape to when the realities of being a grown-up takes its toll. I felt like Wendy Darling, who had flew from my bedroom window to the “second star to the right, and straight on till morning.”

We met outside Exit 9 (where KFC is), a kind of default meeting place when people meet in Hongdae. He was in an azure blue check shirt and looked like a little piece of summer sky. Across the street, you could catch the latest Hollywood releases or Korean movies (no subtitles though) at CGV – the largest multiplex cinema chain in South Korea. But not tonight, it is Spring time in Seoul and the weather begged to be appreciated.

The options for dining out in Hongdae are endless – barbecue houses, Bongchu Jjimdak (chicken stew), pork belly stir fried over a bed of bean sprouts with cheese on top. Cheese on ramyeon in a pot of Budae Jjigae (a kind of spicy stew with sausages, spam and tofu). Chicken baked with cheese and rice cake. Dakgalbi (stir fried spicy chicken) with double servings of cheese. You get the idea.

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We settled for beef bulgogi (no cheese), where you get served a huge plate of marinated raw sliced beef to be grilled over a mookata-style steamboat. The “moat” surrounding the grill is then filled with beef stock and vegetables while the beef cooks on top – its juicy goodness overflows into the soup. Oh la la~ c’est merveilleux!

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I am a lover of Winter; but there is something about Spring that stirs the soul. Spring is a lot like love, like Pablo Neruda mused, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” We found an empty spot on a bench at the Hongdae Playground (a kind of symbol and landmark here). The poison tonight was single malt whiskey and free flowing conversation under the blooming cherry blossom trees. Moments later, a singer sets up his make-shift stage and croons sad love songs about farewells and heartbreaks.

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On Fridays (or “bulgeum”, literally fire friday or burning friday) and Saturdays, the place transforms into a space where performers bring their own equipments and perform to huge crowds. A testament to the street culture that thrives in Hongdae, and the support for local and independent musicians – a lot of them extremely talented. Some of my fondest memories of Seoul have been spent here, drinking makgoelli (korean rice wine) from plastic cups while watching rappers, dancers, or amazing live band music (I’ve included a link right here).

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Picture credit: letstravelkorea.wordpress.com

The night is still young and we take a walk along the streets and pass by 24 hour cafes, jazz bars (try Club Evans, but go early to get a seat) and more Korean bars. Korean bars are a little different from the ones we find in Singapore. You go to a Korean bar with a group of friends (never alone), order soju or beer and you have to order anju. Anju is a term for food that accompanies the alcohol, they can be side dishes or stews. Samgeori Pocha 삼거리포차 (pictured below; owned by YG Entertainment) is usually packed on weekends with a long queue forming outside. Pocha are traditionally outdoor tents wrapped with plastic, and have evolved somewhat into pick up joints, where after a few drinks singles approach other tables to perform “dares” from losing drinking games.

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Picture credit: http://www.tanpopohair.com/tanpopo_photo/71596

Hongdae-nb2

A typical night out in Hongdae would not be complete without visiting one of the many dance clubs here, and if you come here you have to go to one. The size of the scene in Hongdae may not be as large as Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong, but the energy is raw and infectious and I loved it! Some clubs are opened everyday and they close only in the mornings. I don’t know what time it closes, because the last time we stumbled out onto the pavements it was already 6.30am and no one looked like they were going home. The most popular of these would be NB2 ( a hiphop club owned also by YG Ent; the club is right next to a NIKE store and covers are 15000W) and Club Cocoon (electronic music and covers are 30000W on weekends).

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We lost track of time walking along one of the many dimly lit graffiti alleys made for stolen kisses. I was not sure if I were sleeping or awake, or maybe in that space where you were conscious that you were dreaming. It didn’t matter what time it was, there was always something to do or eat in Hongdae. There were noraebangs (or karaoke rooms) or dvd bangs (literally private rooms to watch dvd in) to hang out in if you didn’t want to go home. Out on the street, we passed a young couple huddled because of the cold that had began to descent as the night crept on. It must be insane to want to stay out here, but I guess love that is not madness is not love.

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Han River at night

Picture credit: http://en.korea.com/blog/handb/travel-leisure/nightscape-pictures-taken-manually-while-fighting-the-bitter-cold/

So we decided to buy the quintessential Korean 치맥 (chi-maek, short for fried chicken and maekchu) and walked twenty minutes to the Han River. Somewhere in between beers and conversations, I found myself back at the bus stop waiting for the airport bus to Incheon Airport. It was time to leave Neverland, but the smile on my face was hard to erase despite a heaviness in my heart. The farewell had been like a silent movie, awkward and unprepared, but it was enough for me that I would always have the memories of the Spring I spent in Seoul.

“What are we after all our dreams, after all our memories?” – The Notebook

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