Adventures in Namdaemun Market

by Eli Hodapp

Today might’ve been the best day I’ve had in a foreign country, or, at least, somewhere in the running towards the top. It started with me waking up super early, as expected, and having Brad and Jared totally on top of things related to TouchArcade. With nothing to worry about on that front, I once again headed down for the awesome multi-national hotel buffet and went to town on all manner of meats, teas, and cheeses. I’m getting a little too used to this.

I came back up to the room and planned a quick itinerary of things I figured I’d have time to see and a route that made sense to get to them all. The first stop was Namdaemun Market, and armed with only the absolute most basic of Korean and a map I actually managed to do the whole exchange with the taxi driver without issue. That was really the only thing I was even remotely stressed about, as cabs are so cheap and plentiful in Seoul that as long as I can explain where I want to go the whole city is at my fingertips.

Namdaemun Market was a good thirty minute drive from the hotel, actually probably a little more. Seoul is a ridiculously dense city, so even getting between places that don’t look that far on the map take a considerable amount of time. This is amplified if you want to go across the river, as obviously, there’s only so many bridges. Speaking of the river, that’s one of the most interesting things about Seoul.

On the left side of the above photo is the “old” Seoul north of the Han River. The right side is the “new” Gangnam district which lies to the south. The juxtaposition between these two areas is just incredible, especially considering they’re only separated by a small stretch of water. Gangnam and the surrounding areas are a new planned city, with brand new buildings, a grid system of streets, and everything about it feels very fresh and nice.

North of the river, however, feels like entering some sort of Blade Runner-esque cultural explosion. It’s so old that quite literally any piece of available real estate is developed. This looks incredible coming in, as every hill has a building built on it, with buildings sandwiched next to them, and sometimes even additional buildings smooshed in between or stacked right on top. It reminds me of how San Francisco works with all the hilly development, but with the overall density turned up to 11.

It looks a little old and dirty, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a place that feels more alive. There’s something going on everywhere. Every weird little window has activity inside of it, there’s people everywhere, cars pack the street, and an elaborate system of busses and subways connect it all. I really, really liked it. It’s unbelievably cool how a quick cab ride makes it feel like you’ve gone back in time.

I arrived at Namdaemun Market, and paid the taxi driver less than the equivalent of $10 to get there, tip included. This market is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Sure, I’ve watched tons of travel shows where people visit these different open air markets in Asia but you just never get the scope of just how vast and dense they are. It’s overwhelming to the point that it almost gives you a headache trying to take it all in as there is just so much activity and so many things to look at.

Namdaemun Market has been around since 1414, and has been growing ever since. I think the best way to describe it would be if you took every single flea market in the USA, added in every Koreatown metropolitan shopping area, and then ran it through some sort of magic compressor that made it fit inside of a few city blocks.

The basic basis of the whole place initially seems like it’s just various stalls with vendors set up in them, but then you get deeper in to it, and you see that these vendors are actually just making the outer wall of these small cities of similar stalls. Most of it is packed together so tightly that you need to walk sideways. I ended up spending so much time at Namdaemun Market that I didn’t even do anything else today. I walked around it until my feet, knees, and hips hurt, and I don’t think I saw even half of it.

So each of these little booths might be something like ten feet by ten feet, and they make the most of the space that they have. For instance, one guy sold nothing but hats. But, we’re not talking he had a dozen or so hats for sale, I’m talking a ten foot wide ten foot tall wall of hats, with a break in the front showcase just large enough to see all the other hats he had inside. I’d estimate he was selling thousands of different hats, but even that seems low.

The dodgiest stuff just appeared out of thin air on the sidewalk, like the above blanket full of “Louis Vuitton” wallets. They dump all this stuff out, shout about it, people coming rushing over to buy it, and they disappear. Additionally, people basically sell food out of massive plastic bags, and there’s enough people around that it seems to all get sold.

I kept seeing this same old woman, selling whatever strange food she was selling, moving all over the market. First she was set up on the sidewalk outside where I got out of my cab, then kept filtering around setting up her massive plastic bag filled of her food and just collecting money from people walking by that’d grab some.

It was around this time that I noticed there was a ramp leading down to a basement area, leading to a massive underground that spanned the entire Namdaemun Market. Down here was all sorts of different groceries, herbal remedies, supplements, and I even found a guy selling Costco store brand vitamins.

Absolutely every inch of Namdaemun Market is occupied by something. The above little noodle joint? That’s actually under the farthest area of the ramp from the previous photo. This woman cooking basically can’t even stand up all the way without hitting her head, and I’m ducking when I took this photo. It’s incredible.

Following this, I went through a tunnel, then up some stairs to a huge building full of people selling nothing but fresh cut flowers. And, again, I’m not talking “Oh here we have a few flowers,” I’m talking roses stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Deeper inside there were florists using these same flowers to make remarkably elaborate arrangements. When I was in here, I heard what sounded like thunder, and remembered that the forecast today mentioned rain.

I took my jacket, figuring I’d be OK with some rain. No, South Korean rain is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It comes on in an instant, and it’s the strongest downpour I think I’ve ever seen.

When it started to rain, everyone quickly unrolled these huge awnings to protect their stuff, and then cover the rest of it that’s sticking out with some plastic.

Watching everyone do this in unison made it feel like some well rehearsed routine, and like the whole market was this living breathing thing even though it was just all these individual people doing their part.

…And a few minutes later it’s bright and sunny. The weather here is incredible. It goes from a downpour that’s so intense that you’re on the verge of getting scared to total blue skies over the course of maybe five minutes, ten minutes maximum.

Unfortunately I don’t have any good photos of specific booths, as people really didn’t seem to like it that I was taking pictures. I later sort of figured out that everything (Or, most things, I guess) that has a brand name on it is fake and they’re not supposed to sell fake things in Korea. Pulling out my phone to take a photo would result in people putting their hands up and saying “You go now!” So strange.

I actually wanted to buy a hilariously terrible fake Rolex, but when I said the word “fake” as I was handing her the equivalent of around $11 the woman closed up her book of watches and pushed my money back at me while yelling “No fake, go away!” Oh well. That seems like the kind of thing I could get in trouble for going through customs so it’s probably better I couldn’t buy it.

As it got closer to noon, I started to notice all of these women quickly moving through Namdaemun Market carrying trays of food on their heads. It seems at lunch time the whole place gets food delivery from the various kitchens inside of the market itself.

Each of these old women seemed to originate from their own tiny kitchens inside of the market. But where do they get their ingredients from? Well, the people selling them there of course.

Also, not only did they have people selling actual spices that are used for all sorts of Korean cooking…

…But they also had entirely different people grinding these spices to presumably be sold to these people.

It is just insane how this whole market is its own economic ecosystem. If you look hard enough, you can find everything on every layer. Like I had the photo earlier of the woman selling noodles? I found the stall where they make the noodles. There’s people selling dresses, but there’s also stalls with old women sewing those dresses, and then stalls with people selling the fabric, and even stalls where they’re weaving that very same fabric. Seeing all of this inside of a few city blocks is easily high on the list of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.

So while the actual retailers selling physical items are a little standoffish towards tourists like myself, the exact opposite is true when you get near anything to do with actual food. People actively try to seat you as you walk by, pulling out stools for you and tugging on your jacket sleeve. Those who spoke basic English said things like “Eat good food!” others just pantomimed an exaggerated eating, smiling, and belly rubbing.

Coming out of the food area, once again there was another person that quickly set up selling obviously fake stuff and shouting about it. This time it was all North Face fleeces that didn’t look quite right to me. Regardless, people mobbed him and as you can see he’s got nearly a half inch thick stack of cash.

I wandered around a bit more, just taking everything in, and realized it was close to 5:00 PM, I had spent over seven hours at this market! I still had areas to be explored. But, with dinner plans I’d already made I headed back to the hotel.

Sadly, this was the closest I was able to get to the Seoul Tower, but at least my cab driver was nice about taking a route that went near it on the way back. That was next on my list, but really, I don’t regret letting Namdaemun Market suck up my whole day one bit. What an incredible experience.

I really just wish there was a better way to capture the scope of the whole thing, as my description of it as well as my photos just don’t do it justice. Whatever you’re imagining, multiply that by one hundred. That’s probably not even close to how it actually is. I’m not at all joking when I say I’ve never been anywhere like it.

I had the driver drop me off on the side of the hotel so I could walk through the COEX Mall again on the way back, as I took entirely too much money out of the ATM when I arrived and the last thing I want is to go back to the USA with a few hundred thousand won in my pocket or get boned by a currency exchange turning it back in to dollars. So, I dropped close to half a million won on some new jeans and a jacket I’ve had my eyes on for a while- Two fantastic souvenirs for the trip, and it’s sort of cool to be able to say, “Yeah I just dropped half a mil’ at the mall” until you realize how hilariously inflated the Korean won is.

Aaaand the best way to end any already great day is with Korean barbecue. Tonight involved going to a brand new place with some old friends and some new one. A great conclusion! Now I’ve got to pack my bag, sleep for a few hours, and prepare for my time warp. I’ll actually arrive home in Chicago and the local time will be an hour before I left Korea’s local time.

It makes my brain hurt.