Surviving Seoul

Seoul PalaceAfter yesterday’s grinding 11 hour, three movie, flight from Seattle Marilynn and I landed at Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul and hopped the hour-long Korean Air Lines shuttle into the city. We had reservations at a three star hotel that I booked online, and for the first time in four years we are breaking up the trip to Saigon with a three day stay Korea. We’ve passed through Incheon International a half dozen times but neither of us has ever been into Seoul proper. It sounded like a great idea; Korea is booming – Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, L/G, Daiwoo – and new cities are being built from the ground up to handle the growth. Two years ago I blogged about Incheon International and suggested that it was the world’s best airport and our opinion of South Korea was bolstered by yesterday’s trip from the airport to the city in a comfortable new natural gas powered bus on wide, beautifully engineered, well-lit highways and causeways.

That was, however, the end of the honeymoon.

The KAL bus doesn’t stop at the New Kukje Hotel, the one I booked online. That should have set off some kind of alarm but it didn’t. On arrival in downtown Seoul we were casually offloaded with our four bags into the street in front of the Koreana Hotel, roughly two blocks from the New Kukje. The experience might have been different if we hadn’t been exhausted from the trip. It might have been different if it hadn’t been 32⁰F. It might have been different if we had packed light like we usually do, but we were packed for two climatic zones – winter in Korea and the 90⁰/90% heat of Saigon, as well as business in Saigon and vacation at the beach on Phu Quoc Island. It might have been different if the street we were standing in wasn’t six lanes across at rush hour with no crosswalk between the Koreana and the New Kukje, and it might have been different if we could have persuaded a taxi to take us the two blocks at any cost. But, it wasn’t different. In a Kafkaesque scene, we asked cab after cab to drive us the two blocks to the hotel and all of them pointed at the hotel sign and told us to walk. We could see the New Kukje sign from where we were. It might also have been different if any of the taxi drivers or the doorman at the Koreana had spoken some English. Yes, yes, I know, this sounds like an ugly American rant, but Seoul is an international business hub and I’ve traveled to a hell of a lot of primitive places where it was easier to get what I needed than it was last night.

But wait… there’s more. A cab driver did finally take pity on us and we loaded the bags and squeezed into the cab. As it turns out Seoul is a maze of one way streets and it took us ten minutes to navigate to the New Kukje where I happily paid the cabbie twice what he asked for. We were finally there, but “there” didn’t look even vaguely like the pictures on the website. The “New” Kukje is a one star hotel masquerading as a three star and the “New” in the name was probably true in 1975.

I thought Marilynn was going to kill me. The marble lobby of the New Kukje which was by far its best feature smelled like kimchi, not my favorite food to begin with. Getting off the elevator at our floor we noticed the dirty, frayed carpet and the dark narrow, twisty hallway that led eventually to our room which was heavy with the smell of cigarettes. But… wait there’s even more.

The Agoda website, where I made the reservation, promised a restaurant and a bar but the bar was non-existent and the restaurant manager told us they were no longer serving at 8pm. We ended up walking two blocks to the Texas Bar, begged for some peanuts which our perplexed waiter found and washed them down with two draft lagers. Back in the room, the two bottles of water provided by the management were gone in a heartbeat and there was no minibar to restock from. The only redeeming feature of the room was crisp white sheets and we gave up the quest for satisfaction after I let the front desk know we were leaving in the morning. I groggily went online and booked a room at the Koreana where this in-town odyssey began three hours before.

I wish I could say that today was better. We did manage to move out of the New Kukje after a little tiff over the length of our stay and traveled by taxi over to the Koreana. We took a quick city bus tour with a guide who didn’t know the population of the city or the name or purpose of a huge stone monument in one of the roundabouts. I think we knew almost as much as she did which was OK since there isn’t really that much to know about a big modern Asian city that has torn down most of its history. At 2:30pm we were turned away by five different restaurants because it was past lunchtime (and one who told us they couldn’t serve us because it was “break time”). Yes, God, there is a mandatory break time for employees at Shy Baby, the soul food restaurant in the Seoul Finance Center. I kid you not. Soul food in Seoul.

I’ve given a lot of thought to global citizenship and often wished that more Americans would do the same. I’ve lived in Germany, France, Vietnam and all four corners of the US. I value tolerance and celebrate differences, but Seoul is challenging the thin veneer of my global principles. I know there are good things happening here, just as I know even the best restaurants butcher the dining experience occasionally. I know the city will be easier on the eye when the leaves pop in the spring, the murky gray inversion lifts and those down parkas and knit caps come off, but I think I’ll give it a pass. I’ll have to be satisfied with a new Samsung Galaxy or Hyundai Sonata if that day ever comes. I’ll just know that hot new products are more important than communication or personal comfort in Korea and that might count for something. It’s time for me to move on to Vietnam where the people are poorer but more welcoming and where I know more about how things work.

Despite all the disappointments in Seoul I remind myself that being able to travel, to live in comfort, to have the gift of free expression, to have successful children, and to be healthy enough to enjoy all of them is an extraordinary gift mostly made possible by the gift of birth in America. Don’t let me forget this if I start to launch into another ugly American rant which I might do if I have to listen to much more from John McCain or Lindsey Graham.


  1. In spite of the semi-horror you describe, I loved this Jack. As Rosanna Rosanna Danna always said, “it’s always something.” Or as someone else said, it could be worse (voise). But not much. Well actually, and as you imply, a whole whole lot worse. Still, thanks for living and describing one of my semi-nightmares. Did you check all of this out through my favorite site, Trip Advisor? We always check the user comments. It can help. But too late for Seul.


  2. Yikes. I think we’ll pass on Seoul. Quelle disastre!!!! Let’s hear it for la belle France – we leave in a month.

  3. Funny—just last night when we were driving home from the opera I said to Walt that you guys must be about ready to take off for VN. Surprised this morning to find your blog and I was even laughing as I read it–you, too, will laugh when you recover and look back–I know, from having had some miserable travel times. Keep writing.

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