So much fun scouring Seoul's flea markets

by Belle Nachmann
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Strolling through an electronics market in Dongdaemun on a Sunday afternoon, we suddenly find ourselves thrust into a sea of plastic chairs by a cheeky old ajosshi turned self-professed taekwondo champion, who later threatened to fight us. We find ourselves immersed amid old, red-faced stallholders in a makgeolli tent, with seemingly nothing better to do than to eat ddeokbokki and lecture us about marriage and employment.

As the alcohol goes straight to our heads, we can only laugh hysterically and guess what banter is going on around us. This is just one of the many things that can happen in Seoul’s traditional and flea markets. Beyond just housing great shopping bargains, the sights, sounds, smells and tastes are infinite.

Here are six of Seoul’s coolest markets, some of which even the most seasoned of expats haven’t heard of.

Hwanghakdong Market
The mother of all flea markets, this market at Dongmyo Station attracts the masses and sprawls across numerous suburbs. You can easily spend an entire day here, and there is virtually nothing you can’t buy. There’s also a food street selling delicious pajeon, as well as old women touting bondeggi — if you can handle the smell.

Wandering the streets of Hwanghakdong, I wonder about the stories behind the thousands of faces I see. Do these sellers come here to hover over their picnic blankets every day? Do they really think their Ray-Bans look real? Where does all of this stuff come from? Has the bag of old clothes I put out on the street last weekend made it here yet?

Golf clubs, shoes, bags, fishing rods, watches, furniture, Jeju harrubong statues, clothes, antiques, appliances, old magazines, shoes, glasses, backpacks, North Korean money, tripods, other camera equipment and a myriad other knickknacks are on offer. We even saw a few dusty blue pills of Viagra.

If you want to get involved, simply throw down a blanket amid the throngs and remember your Korean money denominations.

When/where: Open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., though Sunday is the best day to go. Take lines 1 or 6 to Dongmyo Station. Double back out of exit 3, and the market will be on your right.

Seoul Folk Flea Market
Each aisle of this impressive two-story market brings something eclectic and new. We playfully strum out-of-tune guitars one minute before gawking at sea turtle taxidermies around the corner. After attempting to search for a nice leather rucksack, I am so dusty, exhausted and overwhelmed by the car-sized pile of used knockoff designer handbags that I simply give up. I doubt the ones at the bottom have ever seen the light of day.The Seoul Folk Flea Market is also a great place to pick up leather goods, hiking gear, clothes and Korean music CDs, if that’s your thing. There’s also an interesting section of army supplies, with its freeze-dried foods, camping stoves, knives and other outdoorsy gear.

The market is well organized, with ATMs and signs in English. Here you can easily end up with a bargain, or at least grab a cheap and cheerful bibimbap in the food section.

When/where: Open every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month. Take lines 1 or 2 to Sinseol-dong Station. From exit 10, walk straight and take the first left. The Seoul Folk Flea Market is down the second road on your left.

Gwangjang Market
Gwangjang Market is predominantly a food market. At times, you’ll see piles of every sort of kimchi tower above you and dried fish hang from the rafters. There are also traditional stalls selling made-to-order hanbok gowns and various other goods, but what you really come here for is people watching.

Steam bellows from giant hotplates run by the old women cooking endless amounts of Korean pancakes. Ajosshis smoking pipes, families queuing up for lunch and halmonis chopping up pig’s trotters into edible sizes are among the interesting characters here.

If you’re game, take a seat at one of the lunch stalls and do your best to avoid the blood sausage and various animal appendages.

When/where: Open every day, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Take line 1 to Jongno(5)-ga Station. From exit 8, the market is straight ahead and on the right.

Seoul Global Center’s Foreigner Flea Market
This foreigner flea market requires that at least one foreigner mans each stall. While the majority of stalls appeared to be entirely Korean, there were international stalls with vendors from Poland, Nepal, India and the U.S., to name a few.The goods range from secondhand clothing to potted plants and even craft stalls for children. The market is very family friendly, even with a bouncing castle.

To sell anything from secondhand goods to homemade hummus, registration is easy and free. Just email chrismo07@sba.seoul.kr for more details.

When/where: Venue and dates vary. Markets are usually held fortnightly. For more information, visit www.global.seoul.go.kr.

Seocho Folk Flea Market
For this outdoor market, you’ll need to get your elbows out. Ajosshis and ajummas make up the majority of the bargain hunters here, and they are ruthless. Pushing, shoving and throwing heaps of clothes around are just a few of the behaviors you will encounter.At this market, I quickly learned that if I wanted a bargain, I needed to fight for it. As I inspected the sleeve of a jacket that I was considering, a lady tugged at the other end to let me know that until won is exchanged, ownership is yet to be established.

Merely looking at an item usually attracts more interest — and if a few people stop to have a look at a particular stall, the carnage turns something you might see on the National Geographic channel.

But don’t let this discourage you. Through the madness some gems can be found. Vintage Nike and Reebok trainers, secondhand designer bags and various household items can be scooped up here. The locals have spring-cleaned and are setting up on picnic rugs in the streets to reclaim a buck on their unwanted purchases.

For the timid, simply people watching and moseying around for the odd treasure is often pleasure enough. However, if getting involved is more your thing, grab your suitcase of items collecting dust in your apartment and set up shop. It’s free and you can register at www.seocho.go.kr (Korean only).

When/where: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every Saturday, year-round, weather permitting. Take lines 2 or 4 to Sadang Station. From exit 13, take any of the streets to your right. The market runs parallel to the main road.

Filipino Market
This small food market is quaint and full of delicacies you can’t find at many other places in town, such as the Filipino street snack called balut — a hardboiled duck egg with a fertilized embryo inside.If the balut isn’t to your taste, there are many other treats to be munched on. Deep-fried banana fritters, chicken or pork sticks, noodles, spring rolls and curries are all cooked in the streets and devoured in temporary Southeast Asian-style plastic furniture restaurants.

You can also shop for Western toiletries and foods such as deodorants, shampoos and hard-to-find prizes including sausages, mangos and root beer.

When/where: Every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Take line 4 to Hyehwa Station. From exit 1, the market is straight ahead.

Other markets around Seoul

Ttukseom Resort Foreigner Flea Market
Household items and secondhand clothes. Contrary to its name, there are very few foreigners who frequent this fair.

When/where: Every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Take line 7 to Ttukseom Resort Station, exit 1 or 2.

Jungang Traditional Market
Great market for fruits, vegetables and groceries. At the back, near Dongdaemun, is a market for secondhand appliances and tech gadgets.

When/where: pen every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Take lines 2 or 6 to Sindang Station, exit 2. The entrance to the market is on your left.

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