Seoul – a puzzle of contrasts

Tiếng Việt

I came to Seoul for the first time in a business trip more than 20 years ago. It was also the first ever abroad trip for a girl like me who was a new graduated student struggling in her first job. At that time, Seoul appeared like another world in the planet, modern and spectacular in every detail. High skyscrapers made your hat fall down when glancing up. Amazing and confusing subway system, wide and multi layers streets filled with cars, and even many buttons in Korean language in the toilet were good enough to make me of 20 years ago bewildered and surprised.

This time, back to Seoul with my big family from senior people to young children, also I myself have experienced many big cities on all the continents in the world, Seoul no longer gives me the overwhelming feeling as it did in the first time.

In my personal opinion, if Saigon is messy but friendly, Bangkok is colorful, Jarkata and Manila are jammed in all directions, Beijing and Shanghai are cold and polluted, Delhi is hasty and decentralized, Tokyo is crowded and bustling, Seoul is a puzzle of contrastsThe opposition is seen in architecture, fashion, cuisine and in several little things in daily life. It is the unique beauty creating the attractiveness for this city. 

Contrast in architecture

This is the most obvious thing that you can recognize by just taking a bus around Seoul. The contrast in architecture comes from the serenity & rusticity of the ancient palaces, Buddhist temples, the old town with traditional one-storey wooden mansions intertwining with the cutting edge modernity of skyscrapers with shiny glass walls, giant led screens and towering TV towers. If you use these details to describe Beijing, Tokyo or Bangkok, it is probably not wrong at all.

Bukchon Hanok village is located in central of Seoul, South Korea
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul, South Korea

So what makes the contrast in architecture in Seoul outstanding? In my opinion, it is the intensity of the contrast since each edge is pushed up to its peak. Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a creative masterpiece in modern design is a puzzle coming from the future, in stark contrast to the serene and simple look of Gyeongbok palace. Open Starfield Library with giant, two-storey bookshelves is the perfect opposition to the ancient traditional 1-storey chalets of Bukchon Hanok village. With every step in the past, the next goes toward the future, these contrasting pieces are harmonized and intertwined together, creating an extremely fascinating architectural puzzle for Seoul.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza – A puzzle piece of the future

Starfield Library  – A puzzle piece of modern knowledge

Gyeongbok palace – A serene puzzle piece

Bukchon Hanok village – A rustic puzzle piece

Contrast in fashion

Fashion is one of the important industries that bring out the popularity of Korea to the world since it is rated as the trendsetter of modern fashion, especially for Asian young generation. Seoul is certainly the cradle of this diverse-style industry.

Standing at the central station of Seoul, you will not be overwhelmed by the influx of people rushing out in formal office attire with the boring tone of black, grey and white as it is in Tokyo. Instead, the elegance and sophistication in color harmony, the simplicity and comfort in design and materials exudes the dynamic and modern appearance for Seoul.

Dynamic and modern fashion of young generation in Seoul, South Korea

So where is contract in fashion in Seoul? It is the image of the traditional Korean dresses (Hanbok) appearing here and there on Seoul streets. Not only in the old town or around the palaces, not only worn by middle-aged Korean people or tourists renting costumes for photography, but also at any street corner of Seoul we can encounter young Korean dressing up in colorful hanboks. The radiant look of future generation in traditional national costumes is a respectable opposition puzzle piece in the culture of this city.

Simple Hanbok sets for children are widely sold on Seoul streets
Korean youth in traditional Hanbok in Bukchon Hanok village, Seoul

Contrast in cuisine

When talking about Korean cuisine, the first thing to mention is the number of side dishes that come along with the main dish, and 90% of which are kimchi.

Kim Chi is indispensable in Korean cuisine, from traditional kim chi made by cabbage to numerous creative variations made by diverse ingredients, as well as rich in color and regional tastes. On average, a Korean normal meal will have at least 3 types of kim chi. And I luckily experienced a dining table with 20 side dishes including kim chi, while there were only 2 main dishes. Looking at the number of dishes served for a meal, I really felt sorry for Korean women who have to deal with a huge pile of dishes, as well as their time and effort on preparing these many kinds of kim chi.


Colorful kimchi made by vegetables, dried fish and eggs
Kimchi and side dishes cover the table, surrounding 2 main dishes

Of course, not every Korean meal is such spectacular with 20 side dishes. The interesting contrast with these traditional sophisticated meals is the variety of Korean street food which are simple, convenient, neat and cheap but equally delicious and attempting. Street food seems to be everywhere, more scattered around subway stations, inside the markets or in crowded tourist areas.

I was overwhelmed by the crowds, the eagerness and the irresistible aroma when I accidentally strayed into Myeong-dong – Seoul’s famous shopping and dining street. From the beginning to the end of the road, all the dishes are freshly prepared on the spot, looking extremely inviting. Although I had dinner, I also tried nearly 10 dishes there, from delicious Toppoki rice cake, skewered grilled meat, grilled oyster with cheese, dried squid, to red bean cake, caramel-coated strawberry, 30cm long ice cream. Each dish was at the price of 2,000 won to 5,000 won, some up to 10,000 won.

… and contrast in little things in life.

In one of the most modern cities in Asia like Seoul, I was really surprised when I faced difficulties in communication. Except for a few hotel employees who can speak basic English, most of the people I met on the streets from senior to the youth cannot. I used to encounter this challenge when visiting big cities in China like Beijing or Shanghai, but I didn’t think Seoul was the same after its phenomenal growth in all aspects. Therefore, knowing foreign languages is important in international communication, but it is hardly the solely prerequisite for development.

Đường phố Seoul vắng vẻ sáng sớm chủ nhật

And another little contrast is that Seoul is extremely clean without a sign of trash bins. I wondered if Koreans had brought their own bags for garbage or how to store garbage. My family and myself had to cope with this culture by keeping our garbage all day long until we see the trash bin.

5 days in Seoul, not too short, but not long to really experience this city. If you ask me what my impression after all is, perhaps it was nothing clear and special. Seoul didn’t bring me many emotions. Yes, everything is extremely modern, the city is greener, the contrasts are spectacular and amazing, but all of them come and go easily, like saying “Wow”, then that’s it.

Traveled in Jun, 2019

Read my other articles about Korea


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