36 hours in Seoul

Seoul is a blessing in disguise. Our time here is an accident, but Lindsey and I settle into our new reality and decide to make the most. We wake up Monday morning, ready to experience Seoul.

Breakfast: The concierge at our hotel helps us to chart a path for the day, starting with breakfast at a noodle shop tucked away in an alley in Myeondong. It’s the authentic feel we were craving. Old women work with plastic bowls in the back, their ingredients strewn in bags and hung in the alley. Locals come and go in the time it takes us to decide what to order. The food is spicy, delicious, and a steal at just $5 each.

Andrew breakfast in Seoul

Lindsey Breakfast in Seoul

Morning stroll: Although tea isn’t as big in South Korea as it is in some other Asian countries, we couldn’t resist green tea lattes from O’Sulloc Tea House. We sip slowly (they were… thick) as we wander the quiet main street Myeondong. This is the place to go for all Korean skincare products. Think masks made of snail mucus. The loud music blending together from each storefront is energizing. Along the way, we visit the Myeondong Cathedral, famous both for its Catholic significance and its advocacy of democracy. We round out our morning walk on the Cheonggyecheon, an urban park along the waterway that is unexpectedly decorated with some of the most playful and eccentric Christmas decoration.

Green tea latte time

Myeondong walk

Seoul river walk

Late morning pick-me-up: We find a piece of San Francisco when we step into Tesarosa Coffee near Gwanghwamun park.  It has the hipster baristas, the expensive beans, the over-priced pastries, and the rustic yet modern décor.  And for all of that, we love it!  The coffee is great and we feel refueled and ready to continue.

Tesarosa coffee

A piece of Korean culture: Gyeongbokgung palace is a beautifully restored palace in the north of Seoul.  It is truly regal and beautifully restored. The sun comes and goes as we walk through the many levels of this palace, and each new corner presents us with more magical moments.

Gyeongbokgung 1

Gyeongbokgung 2

Gyeongbokgung 3

Gyeongbokgung 4

Gyeongbokgung 5

Gyeongbokgung 6

Lunch and afternoon shopping: After the palace, we head to Insadong, a part of Seoul with traditional shops and restaurants. We enjoy meandering through shops, looking at art in all of its forms from ceramic to paintings to sculptures.  We sample dragon hair candy and buy a scroll that reads, “Every day is new”. It feels fitting given the circumstances. Bibimbap calls for lunch, so we find a spot called Gogung to rest.

A step back in time:  With our stomachs full, we walk to Bukchon hanok village whose steep streets remind us of San Francisco. Each resident’s home is numbered, leading visitors along a path that offers a glimpse back in time. The beautiful roofs, the detailing on the doors and walls, and the window paneling all let us imagine what Seoul might have looked like many years ago. Highly recommend.

Bukchon hanok village 1

Bukchon hanok village 2

Bukchon hanok village 3

The other side of the river: So far today, we’ve explored the north side of the Han river, but to get a sense of Seoul, we can’t leave without exploring a new area.  So we head to Garosugil near Gangnam, a tree-lined street full of up-scale shops and restaurants.  It’s Boston’s Newbury Street in South Korea. One store called Line Friends is drawing a real crowd, so like any good tourists, we also venture in.  We don’t know exactly who these friendly looking characters (stuffed animals) are, but we still hold a photo shoot with an extremely oversized bear to commemorate this occasion.

Line friends

Dinner time: Exhausted, we end our day with some Korean BBQ at Two Plus (TwoPpul DeungShim).  The beef that we have is incredible, and by definition straight off the grill.

Korean BBQ in Seoul

Evening markets: We thought this night was done until we saw flashing lights from the other side of our hotel. We wandered over, slipping under the streets and through the metro to reach the place where we’d started our day: Myeondong. This time, Myendong was alive with dozens of street vendors selling juice, fried shrimp, and Korean snacks. The street seemed to be brighter at night than it was during the day.

Myeondong Night Market 1

Myeondong Night Market 2

And with that, we call it a day. 36 hours well spent in Seoul, South Korea.

An unexpected detour

A disclaimer: I will discuss the events that start our journey to Hanoi with a much calmer disposition than we felt while living through them.   That said, I wouldn’t mind if a couple of the airlines find this post so they can hear some of my frustrations with the events of today.  And with that, here goes my story.

We are so excited for our next adventure – Vietnam and Laos.  Bags packed, reservations made, itinerary printed, and we even get to the airport early.  That’s where the plan goes awry.

At SFO, Virgin American refuses to check us all the way through the Vietnam.  Something about being co-operators with China Southern, it being an international flight, and not actually listening to us when we try to see if there’s any way to help us.  We get to the terminal and all Virgin America flights are delayed (or cancelled).  They give some excuse about winds being stronger than usual, but we’re skeptical.  Flights coming in from all over (East, South, and North) are impacted.  It’s the merger – thanks Alaska Air.  The systems are so broken, they can’t even assign us seats until 30 minutes before boarding, which doesn’t happen until almost 3 hours after our scheduled departure.  The biggest cause of our delay is there’s no crew available.  It’s an operations nightmare, and we’re the unsuspecting bystanders.    

Only 50 minutes to LAX, but just late enough we can’t make our connection on China Southern.  And to add insult to injury, China Southern and Virgin America keep sending us back and forth as no one wants to claim responsibility.  I guess that’s what co-operators means.  Good to know.  The China Southern flight hasn’t taken off, but despite two-dozen angry passengers arguing with the check-in folks, no luck.  Apparently Virgin America had given out some boarding passes, but not to everyone.  And to those folks with boarding passes all the way through to their final destination, China Southern checks them in.  Reminder: getting checked-in to our final destination from Virgin America was something that Lindsey and I couldn’t get, and when we ask Virgin America’s customer service, it’s something that they say is impossible.  Oy.  I think the situation hits its climax when one very unfriendly China Southern attendant rips up a teenager’s boarding pass right in front of her.

We do find one person at Virgin America who is trying to fix everyone else’s mess.  After waiting almost three hours, she sets us up with flights on Korean Air for the next day.  We spend the night in La Canada (thanks mom and dad), and when we wake up the next morning, we find that our latest flight arrangement also delayed, meaning we’ll miss our connection in Seoul.  Not our day/weekend.  We head to the airport to work things out. When we arrive, Korean Airlines says that our flight was never actually was confirmed and that the plane we were supposed to be on is full. It’s infuriating. Mom has thought ahead and taken a defensive position in line at Virgin Airlines. Eventually we have the two airlines talking on our two phones (mine and Mom’s), duking it out. Both want to pass off responsibility and we’re not sure we’ll ever get to Hanoi, let alone in a timely manner. After over an hour of back and forth, we get seats on a plane to Seoul that afternoon and decide to make the most of our 36-hour layover.