In Seoul, after an honest week’s work comes the madcap party weekend, Nainaa Rajpal gets an elaborate introduction to the city’s nightlife when she sets out for her four cha (or rounds) of drinking and dining.
When Psy sang Korea’s Unofficial Anthem Gangnam Style, he spoke of the dual personalities of his ladylove. By day, she’s warm and put together, enjoying a cup of coffee. But at night, she is transformed—she lets her hair down and embraces her wild side. Seoul is a lot like that. I was discovering this uninhabited side of the city on a Friday evening, when we drove to the high-on-energy Hongdae area, known for its edgy underground music and art scene.
With vibrant strokes of self expression spilling onto the pavements and creeping up cafe walls, we, like most revellers in Hongdae, headed for our first cha—barbecues and beer. We chose the celebrated Samgeori Butchers, a sleek restaurant in the heart of Hongdae, that acquired a cult following for its tender samgyeopsal (pork belly) and kimchi bokkeumbap (fried rice).
Traditional teahouses in Korea are an experience where you sit on heated floors and relish herbal teas and fluffy rice snacks. But that’s for the tourists—you will find the locals hanging out at the cafes instead. Seoul has a giant teddy bear café, a Hello Kitty café (that feels like you’re attending a very expensive, very pink, 16th birthday party) and believe it or not…a poop café that offers a poo-shaped waffle with swirls of Nutella on top.
As we exited the café en route to Round 3, the night around us had come alive. Speakeasies in Seoul are highly secretive and almost impossible to get to. Even if you do know the name of the bar, Google Maps isn’t your friend here. But we were a determined bunch and walked down a dark by-lane to track down Bar d.still—an elite speakeasy that is at the forefront of Seoul’s mixology scene. The atmosphere was hypnotic, with low jazz music playing in the background and couples sinking deep into velvet couches. After sampling a host of their fine whiskies and finally finding my favourite drink of the night, apple mojito, I was adequately inebriated for the last cha.
A noraebang (or singing room) is a rite of passage for anyone stepping foot on Korean soil, and this was the cha I’d been waiting for all night. Unlike boisterous karaoke hotspots that are public displays of one’s talent (or lack thereof), a noraebang is a private singing room.
Quirky themes—from Egyptian royalty, Hollywood movies, and ones that allow you to dress up in animal costumes and belt out some K-Pop—are the centre of this experience, so we chose Su Noraebang, which is shaped like a giant dollhouse. The interior with floral wallpaper, expensive chandeliers, and glass floors were striking. A host of soundproof rooms lined the hallway—I walked past them and noticed people in varying stages of insobriety, clutching microphones close to their body, with impassioned expressions on their faces.
As I took the mic, the lights in the room dimmed and a disco ball dangling above, came to life. My group picked up their tambourines and I crooned the lyrics of ABBA’s Mamma Mia. Around 4 am, when we had exhausted our favourite songs on the list, we posed against the backdrop of the effervescent street below, which showed no sign of stopping. The night was still young for the city that would party until sunrise and start the week with diligence and unabated passion—the lady once again calm and composed, and at her desk with a cup of joe.