Heart and Seoul


After the visiting its illustrious capital, Sally Hayden is Seoul-d on South Korea

Shoeless and serene, Otwo sits in front of a fifteen foot high Golden Buddha. Hundreds of people rise and fall in front of us whilst emitting a constant indecipherable chant. This is BongEun Sa, an oasis of tranquillity in the middle of one of the largest and most eclectic cities in the world.

The Yin-Yang symbol’s presence on the South Korean flag is absolutely apt. Seoul is a city of opposites. Samsung headquarters neighbour an ancient palace, the raucous bustling streets give way to the quietness of a Buddhist temple, and on the radio traditional Korean bamboo flute music is interjected with K-pop, the nation’s more modern creation.

This is a country in which to forget Western superiority pretensions and accept that English is not always the language of favour. Carry around a card in Korean with the address of where you are staying. Go into a restaurant, pick a symbol off the menu and hope it’s not the braised silkworms. Don’t be the tourist who thinks that the louder your voice is the more likely you are to be understood.

Spend a day (or night) in Namdaemun market, a tented metropolis of clothes, homeware and electronics. This 24 hour conurbation never rests, and when lost under fluorescent lighting in one of the adjoining vast jewellery workshops, 4am and 4pm are interchangeable.

If you prefer your shopping trips to be those of a more air-conditioned variety, Lotte World is the shopping centre empire for you. Inside this indescribably vast construction you will find shopping-centre essentials such as an ice-rink, several rollercoasters, and the building’s own custom-built island. Most memorably, and also serving as a reminder that South Korean health and safety legislation may not be quite as stringent as in Ireland, the basement also boasts a shooting range. Walk in, show your ID, pick the rifle of your choice, and fire ten bullets at a paper target, all for less than €25.

Korean cuisine is delicious but perhaps not appealing to the Western palate, especially not before 9am. Avoid the sushi and grilled fish breakfast, but treat yourself to shared hot-pots for lunch and Korean barbeque for dinner. Chopsticks are unavoidable, Kim-chi (fermented cabbage) is served with almost every meal, and it is rude to pour yourself a drink.

A few hours at the Korean War Memorial serves as a reminder of the world’s most secretive nation, the South’s lost half, which lies just one hundred miles away. National pride and the echoes of a war not yet won emanate from all aspects of the exhibition, which features drawings by the South’s school children on the theme of conflict and reconciliation. Google map North Korea and your screen will display a blank. Still curious? Spend €50 on a day trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), stare across the void and try and fill in the gaps for yourself.

Apart from an occasional kidnapping (the last was in 2000), in Seoul you could be forgiven for forgetting that the war ever happened. With Soju (tastes like watered down vodka) for 1000 won a bottle (that’s 80c to you and me) and a huge student population, head to Hongdae if you’re keen to sample Seoul’s nightlife. Just be sure to make it clear you’re not American. The US military have been a regular presence since 1950, and have made some local enemies, not for their politics, but for their drunken bad behaviour.

Seoul is a city where barber shop poles signify brothels, StarCraft is revered as a sport, and a bus driver will bow to you in apology if the bus is late. The exclusively female Ewha Women’s University champions gender equality, producing Korea’s first female judges, politicians and leaders, yet wishes visitors luck finding a good husband. Starbucks is open all night, arguing is barely socially acceptable and street fashion is on a par with Tokyo. Seoul is certainly a world away from D4.

Back outside the temple, meditation in the humid heat is disturbed by a sudden downpour of rain.Ying-yang: an Asian philosophy of complementary opposites. Even the weather understands.