Boarding the Asiana Air flight bound for Seoul on the morning of Saturday, April 28, Alexa and I spotted a newspaper cart on the breezeway, a pinkish Korean Herald on top. On the front page: Moon Jae-In and Kim Jong Un, hands raised and clasped in a symbolic gesture of unity. It’s been a few decades since the two countries’ leaders have met, and their talks are hopefully leading to a more peaceful era in Korea and, even more hopefully, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
It was an exciting time to be in Korea.
Very little planning went into this trip. Alexa and I spoke briefly about what we wanted from the journey and came up with breakfast, food, and walking. And, part of the draw, our friend Mary, who had moved from Manila to Seoul this year.
Beyond this, we weren’t sure of anything, including how we’d get from Incheon Airport to our hotel in Myeongdong.
Landing in Seoul, whisked quickly through immigration, we were struck by the palatial size of the airport, how clean and quiet it was. A striking contrast to Manila’s serpentine check-in lines, its bustle.
We purchased a pocket WiFi from the airport ($13USD for 4 days) and used it to research train schedules from the airport to Myeongdong.
The Express Train, which left about every ten minutes or so, cost 20,000 Won (approximately $20) for two people, and deposited us in the heart of Seoul in about 45 minutes. Reasonable price, reasonable time, and efficiency: like Japan, your ticket comes with an assigned seat and clearly marked queues for specific cars.
We arrived at Seoul Station and took a taxi to Lotte City Hotel, Seoul. (The cab was a total of $7USD, but we’d been traveling since 9:45am and it was now 7pm, and we were tired.)
Our big concern at the moment was our bookings. Alexa had generously paid for one night using soon-to-expire airline miles, and wanted to make sure we were in the same room all three nights.
“It would just be annoying if we had to change rooms halfway through our stay,” she pointed out.
The receptionist appeared confused.
“We don’t have a reservation under this name,” she said. “Tomorrow. You have two nights starting tomorrow.”
Not the words you want to hear after landing in a new country.
“But it says here we have a booking tonight also,” Alexa said, showing her phone. The woman squinted.
“Ah,” she said, pointing out the door. “Different hotel.”
We both stared at the phone and it finally made sense: we’d booked one night in Lotte Hotel Seoul, and one in Lotte City Hotel. Oops.
What are the odds of there being two hotels in Seoul called “Lotte”? Lotte doesn’t sound like a common Korean word; the only Lotte I knew was a Dutch girl I played rugby with in Egypt. But the more we explored Seoul, the more Lotte we saw: department stores, phone plans, subway cars.
Anyway, it was clear that both hotels were owned by this omnipresent Lotte, so Alexa asked if we could cancel our booking at the other hotel and change it to this one. The woman regarded us as if we were nuts.
“Uh…the other hotel is…bigger,” she told us. “5 minute walk.”
It was an enjoyable walk. The weather in Seoul was brisk and chilly, faintly spring-ish. In the soft twilight, dozens of colorful paper lanterns were blinking to life up and down the main road. The sidewalks were wide, the crosswalks efficient. It could’ve been worse.
Lotte Hotel Seoul was indeed bigger. With a grand lobby and sleek decor, it was the upscale cousin of the practical business hotel we’d started at. Did I mention it was a 5-star?
“You have a special check-in,” said the receptionist. “31st floor.”
“What did I book us?” Alexa remarked, scrolling through the hotel website, scraping our jaws off the floor at the price per night.
In our special Club Lounge check-in, Alexa negotiated a 2pm check-out the next day so we weren’t stranded in some hotel limbo while waiting to check in to the other hotel. I pulled a copy of the Herald off a shelf and struck up a conversation with the other receptionist, who said he was “very excited” about the news.
Equally exciting: it was 7:50, and there was 10 minutes remaining of Happy Hour.
We poured ourselves some wine, piled cheese onto a plate, and alternated between a glittering city view of Seoul and CNN replaying footage of the earlier talks at the DMZ.
Our room was small and chic and had a bathtub, but I resisted the urge to crawl into it and instead, we researched dinner options.
Myeongdong is famous for its street food, and Alexa and I had perused a list of 30 bites to try. But, as the clock ticked past 9, we learned our first lesson: most restaurants close by 10pm. For a Saturday night in a city, this was surprising, but apparently common. Every restaurant we Googled closed by 10.
We finally found a French-Korean fusion called Loup Blanc, situated a 20-minute cab ride away in hipster Hongdae. We cross-referenced our websites to confirm that the place closed at 11, hailed a cab, and 20 minutes later, found ourselves in front of a pitch-black alley, the restaurant sign dark.
“Maybe there’s a secret entrance,” I said, moving into the alley.
“No, Nicole. This is like…lose business secret. It’s closed,” Alexa said. “But it looks like a place we would’ve enjoyed eating at.”
Thus began our hour of roaming Hongdae. In finding a restaurant, we faced two obstacles: all of the menus were in Korean (or the places were closed), and neither of us knew how to communicate that Alexa is gluten free. We still didn’t even know how to say thank you.
Despite our hunger, we found the area to be cute. Accidentally, we stumbled on a pedestrian street with lots of bars and closed restaurants, but with a cool promenade that stretched along a disused railroad track.
Torn between calling it a night and giving up, we found ourselves down a narrow street, in front of a dim, modest hole-in-the-wall that smelled of incense and musk. Inside, 2-4 wooden tables occupied the small dining space and the walls were crammed with old records and cassettes. A cramped stage in the corner was cluttered with mic stands, a guitar, a piano. Our table looked like it might have been part of a castle drawbridge in a past life.
I had an IPA, she had a Jameson and Coke. Through an iPhone-infused conversation with our waiter, we managed to convey “gluten-free” and he pointed to the sole item on the menu that was gluten-free: Caprese salad.
I don’t know about you, but when I think Caprese salad, I picture 6 tomatoes and 3 modest slices of mozzarella the restaurant seemed loathe to part with. In Korea, they are more generous with their cheese. A dozen tomato-cheese duos lay basking in a drizzle of balsamic.
“Our first meal in Korea is Caprese salad,” Alexa noted.
Later, when we tried to pay, the waitress (dressed in an oversized hockey jersey with matching bright eye shadow) misunderstood and took the Caprese away, then brought it back out again with a plastic bag in the event we wanted to retain the last few chunks and maybe eat it on the go.
It was bizarre, but fitting, for our first evening.
Alexa discovered that we’d been in the “Korean hipster area” of Hongdae, as opposed to the younger hipster area located near the university, a few blocks away. Walking toward the main road, we passed dozens of equally quirky, cozy bars that looked inviting, but it was nearly 1am and we were tired.
Hailing a cab was a feat.
We’d stand in a spot for 5 minutes and watch people successfully hailing cabs from a spot nearby. We’d go there and watch as people scored cabs from our previous spot.
“It’s hard to get cabs this late, when the subway stops running,” my friend told me in a message. “You have to book them in advance.”
Finally, after 45 minutes of being passed by, Alexa stopped a girl crossing the street who told us to head to the university, where all the drunks would also be hailing cabs. In the end, she walked us there.
A Chicago native, Theresa taught English and rescued us from what might have been a 2-hour walk home. During our short walk, she explained that yes, things closed at 10 and that restaurants opened and closed here in a matter of days.
“This used to be my favorite place to eat,” she said, gesturing to a boarded up building. “I passed by it the other day and it was closed. No warning.”
She left us and, within moments, we’d hailed a cab and slid comfortably into the backseat.
“You know, things could be worse,” Alexa said, as we headed back to our 5-star hotel. “We made some mistakes, but they actually turned out to be better than our original plans. I’d say we’re tripping up.”
I agreed, and we both contented ourselves with the idea of the $46 Sunday brunch that was included in our hotel cost, that would kickstart our slow Sunday.
Little did we know…
Categories: South Korea