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Heart of Seoul
To truly understand what makes
this complex and beautiful city tick,
Matthew Crompton takes us to the
bosom of the South Korean capital: PHOTO MATTHEW CROMPTON

its marvelous markets

A view over the south aisle

of Noryangjin from the
market balcony.

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SEOUL IS A city of sights that

frequently belie its true character —
medieval palaces that don’t speak
to its essential, gritty joie de vivre as
well as polished luxury department
stores that hide the easy garrulousness
of its people and the city’s recently
developing-world roots. A visit to
Seoul’s public markets, however,
brings into immediate focus exactly
what makes this rough and complex
city so beguiling. “The whole market
experience cuts right to the heart of
Korean culture,” says magazine editor
and longtime Seoul resident, David
Carruth. “You can’t go to a shopping
mall for it as there’s all this distance
between things. It’s got to be here,
in the market, with people jostling
against each other from beneath a
makeshift roof.”
Seoul may seem a hard nut to crack
at first, but these markets — each
easily accessible via the city’s fantastic
subway system — are the perfect
way to experience Asia’s newest “it”

Scenes from Namdaemun (top to bottom):

Noryangjin Fish Market
A food vendor displays a lunchtime spread, Picture an aquarium, overflowing with every form of sea

A labyrinth of
Korean ginseng in glass bottles, and a little life — octopus and prawns, fish and eel, king crab and squid
boy checks out a table of toys.

covered stalls gs
and an entire rainbow of shellfish. Now imagine that you can

om ba
everything fr
eat everything in that aquarium, and you have a good picture

seng in
of the piscatorial vastness of Noryangjin. At 66,000m2,

to Korean gin
it’s the largest fish market in Seoul, and when you’re done

marveling at the mind-boggling variety and size (prawns can
be as long as your arm!) of what’s on offer, it’s de rigeur to
buy a fish or two and take it to the restaurants on the south


wall, where they will prepare you a feast of what’s likely the
Namdaemun Market freshest seafood you will ever have. Highlights include hoe
“For a first-time visitor to Seoul, I think Namdaemun is best,” (pronounced “hwe” — sliced raw fish served with wasabi and
says teacher and native resident, Ayeong Jo, “because other garnishes), jjukkumi (baby octopus tentacles served
Namdaemun has everything.” A labyrinth of plastic-covered chopped and still wiggling, with sesame oil) and maeuntang
stalls selling everything from bags to clothing to Korean (a spicy stew made with the bones and leftovers of your fish).
ginseng, the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none designation Noryangjin Station, line 1, exit 1.
may apply here, but it’s still an excellent introduction to
the Korean market experience. Popular with Japanese and

Chinese tourists, Namdaemun also has some endearingly

peculiar offerings — surly shopkeeps preside over glossy
pictures of Korean pop stars and tables laden with military
surplus paraphernalia. If you get hungry while browsing, the
market is also rightly famous for its food stalls, which do a
brisk trade in kalguksu (a soup of thick noodles in a rich broth)
and jokbal (boiled, deliciously seasoned pig trotters), among Top: An overview of the fish tanks
at Noryangjin Market. Left: Colorful
others. Hoehyeon Station, line 4, exit 6. shellfish await buyers.

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Top to bottom:
Dried herbs hang
in a back alley of
the Gyeongdong
Medicinals complex,
a clerk presides over
dry goods in her stall,
and the “camera”
floor at Yongsan.

This multi-block maze of shops selling the ingredients of Korean

traditional medicine is worth visiting for the smells alone
Gyeongdong Medicinals Market
It may not be a feast for the eyes (most of the goods

here come in various shades of grey and brown), but this

multi-block maze of shops selling the ingredients of Korean
traditional medicines is worth visiting for the smells alone.
Funky, pungent, sharp, heady, earthy and sometimes just
plain weird (but in an interesting way), this is the place to go
for some hwanggi (milk vetch root), jine (dried millipede), or
ground deer antler to cure what ails you. There are also a
number of practitioners of acupuncture and Korean traditional
medicine to get your ki (life force) straightened out and
flowing, but you may want to bring a local with you to sort
out the language issues. Jegi-dong Station, line 1, exit 2.

Yongsan Electronics Market

While it could hardly be called “traditional,” this enormous
electronics market offers a great window into Korea’s
technology-obsessed society. Anything in the world that runs
on batteries or plugs into a wall is on offer here, with floor after
floor of digital cameras and accessories, laptop computers,
rice cookers, humidifiers, television sets and audio equipment.
Just bearing witness to the aisles full of gleaming techie toys
is reason enough to visit, but there are also some deals to
be had if you do your homework and are willing to bargain
hard. You’ll get a better deal buying package combos, but be
forewarned that clerks at Yongsan are notorious for tricking
tourists with little skill for haggling. Yongsan Station, line 1,
exit into station building.

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Left: A woman flips a bindaetteok (mung-

bean pancake) at Gwangjang Market.
Below: Fritters ready to be eaten.

Gwangjang Market
With the lights of bare bulbs burning like stars above
steaming pots and cauldrons, and griddles heaped with
thick rounds of frying batter, Gwangjang might be the single
best place in Seoul to experience the city’s legendary eating
and drinking culture. By day, it’s an ordinary market selling
sundries like fabrics, shoes, and imported candies. At night
the unfinished, hangar-like space is transformed into a
sprawling open restaurant of stalls and carts, heady with the
odors of garlic and chili and raucous with the conversation
at every level of Korean society, from businessmen to
garbagemen to schoolteachers. Famous for its bindaetteok
— a savory mung-bean pancake which pairs perfectly with
soy sauce and a bottle of makgeolli (sour-sweet Korean
rice beer) — a few hours here feels like a celebration of
everything that’s great about Seoul: a place as rough, earthy,
unpretentious, and satisfying as the city that contains it.
Jongno 5-ga Station, line 1, exit 8.


Have you ever wanted to to shop for a new pair of jeans at

3am? Ever had an urge to hunt down accessories long, long
after the sun has gone down? Well, this is Seoul, and the
secret is, thousands of people here do. Dongdaemun’s fashion
markets are the perfect place to get a taste of Seoul’s “city that
never sleeps” character, with shoppers flooding the streets
and pouring into mega fashion stores like Doota and Migliore
late into the night. The maze of stores and alleyways and
stalls may be confusing at first, but getting lost in the flood of
super-shoppers is half the fun, and there are few experiences
as uniquely Seoul as a visit to Dongdaemun in the wee hours.
Dongdaemun Station, line 1 & 4, exit 8 or 9.

Browse for fabrics Cebu Pacific flies to Incheon (Seoul) from Cebu and Manila.
beneath the lights at

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