Yonsei University, known for its international studies program, and Hongik University, with its liberal, chic art students, mean Seoulites here are more accustomed to foreigners carousing among them. Packed with clubs, the area near the main gate of Hongik U. — called Hongdae — has become the most modish place for Korean students, expatriates and tourists to party.
There's a certain electricity in the air around Hongdae, where dimly lighted streets turn into fantastic displays of neon. At intersections, slickly dressed men advertise their clubs the old-fashioned way, by shouting.
About three years ago, 10 of the most popular Hongdae clubs — Hooper, Sk@, DD, SAAB, Hodge Podge, Matmata (now M2), M.I., Myungwolgwan, NB, and Joker Red — started Club Day. On the last Friday of every month, a single cover charge of about $12 gets you into any or all of them. The event has become so popular that tickets sometimes sell out before midnight, and the clubs are open until dawn. With 6,000 tickets available, that's a whole lot of shaking going on.
Being more inclined to pub-crawling than bootie-shaking, I enlist two guides to check out Hongdae. Sam and Brian, both expatriate English instructors, are self-professed experts on Seoul nightlife.
9 p.m.: Woodstock
I meet Sam and Brian at Woodstock, one subway stop from the Hongik University station. Iron Butterfly's rock anthem "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" plays so loudly it hits me like a Tyson left hook. The bar, a small, smoky affair, is packed with wooden picnic tables and people dancing between them.
It looks as if elementary school students decorated the interior with crayons and white-out; sloppy graffiti in Korean and English cover almost every surface. People who aren't dancing, drinking or scribbling on the tables are scratching request notes to the DJ, who has at least 500 albums and hundreds more CDs at his disposal. As the name implies, the song selection tilts toward the '60s and '70s.
Brian and Sam say Woodstock is an excellent place to begin a long night out: The music is familiar and the beer is cheap. After a few, my skepticism vanishes and my head bobs to the music. It reminds me of college.
An hour and a half later, I begin to wonder whether we are going to make it to Hongdae at all, let alone to all 10 clubs. Sam reassures me that it is only one subway stop away and the clubs don't get going until late. I reason aloud that even if we consume only one drink at each of the 10 clubs, we won't be able to walk by the end of the night. "That's sort of the idea," Sam says.
10:50 p.m.: Sk@
We buy our tickets at our first stop, Sk@, which is decorated as if a collage artist had gone mad. Paper products adorn the walls: business cards, tickets, beer coasters, origami figures, sketches. Hard-core rap and rock blare from the Marshall stacks and the crowd is already wound up.
A particularly clever man has pulled a swiveling bar stool out onto the dance floor and stretched across it on his belly. Someone gives him a spin as he imitates traditional Korean and break dancing moves.
Sk@ has seats and stools on the perimeter, but most people leave their drinks on the bar and thrash around on the small dance floor. Everyone is dressed in black or wearing old jeans, and head-banging seems still to be in style. The music and atmosphere are too violent for our tastes, so we stay for only one drink.
"It's a great place when there aren't quite so many people," Brian reassures me. That's unlikely on Club Day.
11:10 p.m.: Hodge Podge
Perhaps the most commonly mispronounced bar in Hongdae, Hodge Podge is "Hood-gee Pood-gee" to Koreans. The dance floor in the subterranean club is also packed, but the volume is lower and the crowd seems less interested in head-banging than at Sk@.
After worming our way through the crowd, we get lucky and find seats at the bar. The walls of Hodge Podge are decorated with modern paintings and strings of flashing lights. Empty cigarette packs, loosely taped to the ceiling, occasionally drop to the dance floor. Someone picks one up and politely asks who lost their smokes until a waiter or waitress lets him in on the joke. This ruse captures the atmosphere of Hodge Podge, laid-back and a little bit silly. The DJ plays bouncy songs from the last four decades that make you want to dance. By midnight all five bartenders are filling glasses nonstop, and at least 150 guests are taking up every inch of available floor space.
12:15 a.m.: Matmata