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A weather-worn delivery truck crawls through a mob of outdoor shoppers before coming to a warning-less stop. Suddenly a rusted door opens, bringing pedestrian traffic to a halt. I dodge the errant driver and his load by taking a quick left, nearly knocking over a rack of trendy, floral print purses. Regaining my balance, I pass a couple of street food vendors, and stop to take a look around me. Unquestionably, this is a place where old meets new, where Asian tradition accommodates Western flavor. This is Hongdae, quite possibly the hippest district in all of Seoul, capitol of South Korea.

Guy with a mohawk and girl leaning on graffitti building.While usually not given more than a paragraph or two in popular guidebooks, Hongdae is widely acclaimed for its progressive art, vibrant nightlife, and overall youthful and creative atmosphere. The district gets its name from an abbreviation for the Korean pronunciation of Hongik University, which opened in 1946, a private educational institution that boasts a student body of over 21,000. Older, more traditional Koreans undoubtedly would be surprised at the wild hairstyles and wardrobe trends you’re sure to encounter in Hongdae.

When I meet expatriates who have lived in South Korea for some time, I like to ask what they enjoy most about the country. What is it that keeps them in this small, densely populated nation, whose sister country isn’t exactly the friendliest of neighbors? And almost without exception, they answer: the people.

But it isn’t just free-spirited students who make this district an exciting place. Hongdae is known to be a hotspot for both locals and foreigners alike. Given that Korea is one of the most ethnically and culturally homogenous countries in the world, one can certainly appreciate the sparks of diversity that Seoul and especially Hongdae provide. On any given weekend, you’re bound to meet scores of fun-loving, English-speaking Koreans laughing and dancing alongside Americans, Canadians, British, Irish, and South Africans, most of whom are English teachers like myself. While English speakers are relatively easy to find in Seoul, Hongdae offers them in special abundance, a luxury not always afforded in other Korean destinations. This crucial combination of progressive Koreans and well-travelled Westerners contributes to the exciting environment for which Hongdae is well known.

With such a diverse and youthful group of individuals, it’s no surprise that Hongdae is home to some of the best, if not the best, nightlife in all of Korea. Available dinner cuisines include the full spectrum of Korean meals coupled with American, Mexican (Gusto Taco being my favorite), Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and fast food selections.

Vera Club in Hongdae SeoulBut it’s after dinner that Hongdae really begins to shine. If you’re like me and not quite ready to sport the 4”+ high heels in which Korean women seem to have been born, you and your comfortable flats won’t be disappointed in either the quality or quantity of clubs. Mono-lingual dancers like myself also need not fear-- clubs nearly always bear English names, some of the most popular being Vera, Cocoon, and Noise Basement. While the entrance fees vary from night to night, bar tabs are usually lower than those in your typical American disco. Operating hours are longer, as well, and Korean clubs rarely shut down before sunrise.

If you’re afraid that you might pass out before last call, don’t be. Most Seoul clubs don’t mind the occasional alcohol-induced slumber. This is especially true of Obaek, an underground Hongdae club nicknamed “the cave.” Inside Obaek, visitors are met with smooth, clay-like, rounded walls which surround an open dance floor and several small enclaves on the sides. These enclaves are generously lined with soft pillows, perfect for a relaxing cool-down or incoherent booze snooze.

The best thing about Hongdae’s club scene, though, is Club Day. During this span of twenty-four hours (that happens once a month), you can experience ten of the district’s hottest clubs for the low, low price of about 15,000 Won. No, that wasn’t an attempt at sarcasm; 15,000 Won translates roughly into a little less than $15 USD. Now that’s what I call booty-shakin’ on a budget.

Boy playing in the park in Hongdae, KoreaEven if clubs and Korean pop music (Kpop) aren’t for you, Hongdae offers other, more relaxing and cheaper options for the nighttime. In fact, one of the most popular evening hangouts for both Koreans and foreigners is completely free and is dubbed simply “the park.” Truly just a small, paved area, the park also boasts a covered pavilion and a graffiti-ridden jungle gym. In the US, a place like this would be an absolute no-no for nighttime shenanigans. In Hongdae, though, it serves as the perfect place to meet up with your friends and drink any of the most common alcohols in Korea: soju (a clear grain alcohol), Makgeolli (a sweet, rice wine), or Cass (one of just a few Korean beers). Even if you choose to abstain from alcohol, the park is sure to offer some free entertainment by way of informal nighttime performances. Since I have been in Korea, I’ve seen breakdancers, drummers, and guitar acts perform in the park, all of which were highly entertaining. Hongdae also offers more traditional options when it comes to live music. Venues like FF, Freebird, and countless others ,provide visitors the chance to see some extremely varied musical acts--acts not likely to be found anywhere else in Seoul.

Hand painted Converse shoes.Of course, there comes the point in any trip when you need to lay down some cash to bring home some keepsakes for yourself, your friends, and your family. Hongdae offers unique shopping opportunities for those with the time and Won to spend. Lining the pedestrian areas are small, boutique-style shops which offer a varied array of trendy clothing, high quality makeup, and the thorough range of stationery you might expect from an Asian supplier.

But if you find yourself in Hongdae in the summer, between March and September, I recommend that you reserve your shopping funds exclusively for the district’s Saturday Free Market. Sadly not a gathering of people offering goods sans payment, it is an endeavor intimately connected with the SoHo-esque arts community that finds its base in Hongik University’s incredible arts department. The Free Market sets up weekly in the park and features the products of some of the most talented artists and craftsmen in the city. As you approach their tents and tables, be prepared find some of the most interesting and unique goods that the country has to offer. On my most recent visit there this year, I found such varied items as worn goat leather wallets, intricately painted light bulbs, homemade Korean dolls, hand-painted Converse and TOMS knockoffs, and a modern take on traditional Korean enameling.

Unlike the park’s mostly young and trendy nighttime crowd, the daytime visitors of the Free Market range from young to old, many of whom seem to take an interest in the work of portrait artists who set up their easles  in heavily trafficked areas. A line of patrons often extends well out of the market’s boundaries, as people are more than willing to pay a small fee to get their “10-second portrait” done by a handsome young Korean artist.

Josua Wilson painting at the park.And while my latest Free Market visit sadly did not include posing for this particular artist, I did manage a brief interview with Joshua Wilson, a Canadian currently living here in Korea. Joshua, the only foreign artist I met that day, sells his acrylic paintings at Hongdae’s Free Market and displays his art online at He says that he usually does well at the market, because vendors pay only 10,000 Won (less than $10 USD) to set up in the park. When I asked Jenny Kidder, Joshua’s wife, about the origin of the “Free” in Free Market, she indicated that it likely refers to Hongdae’s overall vibe, to its promotion of individualism and creativity.

While I could hardly claim to be an expert on all things Seoul, over the past ten months I have managed to take in much of what the city has to offer. I recognize that even if the city in its entirety may stand as a modernizing force in Korean culture, I have found Hongdae to exist as a markedly important and special part of that force. When you consider that South Korea is arguably the most Confucian culture in existence today, you may begin to especially appreciate Hongdae’s promotion of individualism in art, music, and as an overall lifestyle. A place that exudes energy, vivacity, and youth, Hongdae is a must for any Seoul traveler interested in experiencing one of the most progressive pockets of this mega city. / Issue 139 - September 2018
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