SEOUL, South Korea — I was above the clouds at 35,000 feet when South Korea came out of nowhere, like a viral video. Hours later, I landed, checked into my Gangnam hotel and followed a link to K-pop sensation Psy. After about the 20th viewing, I clicked "close" on my browser, annoyed. Gangnam style? What does that even mean?
Gangnam is really the heart of Seoul, a modern district just south of the Han River. There's money here, and the song parodies the uber-cool, the posh and the posers, who come out to see resident celebrities in the upscale Apgujeong neighborhood and perhaps pretend to be one for an evening. It's where the latest and greatest clubs come and go. It's where fashion lives.
With the abundance of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins outlets, it might not seem terribly unfamiliar to a Westerner. Starbucks blends in amid a dozen other coffee franchises just a short gallop from one another on every block.
The main thoroughfares such as Teheran Road are treats for the eye: gleaming glass and steel, slick architecture, big video screens with commercials, high-end brands, the Samsung Town office park. Gangnam generally feels more "business" than "tourist attraction." Fresh men in fresh suits, young women off to the office teetering in heels and impossibly short skirts.
But at night the ties come off, and couples walk arm in arm; friends bustle about or get in line for the latest hot restaurant or club. They are not slow walkers in Seoul, but somehow everyone manages to avoid collisions despite all heads being bent over smartphones.
Step a half block off Teheran Street, and the fun begins. Korean grills with vacuumlike vents dangling over the tables are everywhere. Dine on ogyeopsal (grilled pork belly), and wash it down with a bottle of vodkalike soju, perhaps mixed with Cider (a Sprite-like soda). The meal might set you back less than $15 with all the sides you can stand and a bottle of soju for another $12. But bring a friend; Koreans don't dine alone.
Despite the upward hopes and dreams, street food still rules. Look for the carts pulled up at the corner, surrounded by plastic-windowed canvas to keep out the chill, serving tteokbokki (tube-shaped rice cake swirling in a bright red sauce that blazes a trail down your throat) or burgers or an assortment of fried foods. While fashion icons Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach own the streets, the average Korean goes underground to look for bargains — literally. The Gangnam subway station itself is a small maze of shops spilling out their wares for lunch-hour shoppers.
It's true — much in Gangnam is about keeping up appearances; note the abundance of plastic-surgery clinics. But the national frenzy of fans running out to ride invisible horses en masse reflects a sense of humor and a youthful joie de vivre that a traveler would do well to take part in.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun