[MARKET GUIDE: Namdaemun Market] A Historic Market That Never Sleeps

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[MARKET GUIDE: Namdaemun Market] A Historic Market That Never Sleeps

Namdaemun Market (Namdaemun Sijang) is a shopper's paradise. From clothing and jewelry to flowers and camping gear to household goods and an underground currency exchange, virtually everything you need to make your stay in Korea comfortable can be found here.

The market stays open around the clock. During peak hours - midnight to 4 a.m. - merchants from all over Korea descend upon the market, located in downtown Seoul.

Mixed in with the bulk buyers are insomniac retail customers. It's only when corporate Seoul is busy working that the market slows down. The pace picks up again when the sun starts setting.

Among the market's many attractions are its cheap prices, the variety of products on sale and its long history. Namdaemun is quite possibly Korea's oldest market, and probably its largest.

Namdaemun sprung up near South Gate, the nation's premier historical treasure, built in the late 14th century. The area closest to the gate is the oldest part of the market. The entire triangular block near the gate is now considered part of the market.

After almost 600 years, Namdaemun Market is also a historic site, not simply a place to shop. But even the market is catching up with the times. Famed as a sprawling outdoor market, Namdaemun has recently experienced upward growth. Modern department stores such as the 16-floor Mesa have infiltrated the market.

The market has also been facing stiffening competition from East Gate (Dongdaemun) Market, which offers parking lots and easy access to public transportation. When Migliore and Doosan Tower went up in Dongdaemun several years ago, buyers drained away from Namdaemun, but Mesa has helped lure the young public back to Namdaemun. The market's rallying cry is its claim that it offers "one-stop shopping."

Even with the changes, the outdoor vendors hawking their goods from overladen carts are very much still a part of the market scene. Cries of "Golla-la! Golla-la!" (a street-salesman's version of golla, Korean for "choose") ring out as people pass by, often shoulder to shoulder. Namdaemun is a Korean tradition that may be evolving, but traditions rarely change overnight.

Next Week: Joongang Market, for dried food products, and Bangsan Market, for household utility supplies.


Finding your way around Namdaemun Market - 74 shopping malls, 20,000 speciality stores and countless street vendors - can be a challenge. Certain areas of the market specialize in one type of item, but household goods and clothes are scattered all over the market. Shoppers with a good sense of direction would do well to devote a chunk of time to wandering the labyrinth-like alley ways - with a tight hold on their wallets.

Bargaining is a way of life in the market, but back down with grace if the merchant refuses.


It's no wonder mountain climbers frequent Namdaemun. Stores supplying all you need for the great outdoors line Toegye Street. Waterproof jackets, hiking socks, mini butane gas stoves, backpacks, hiking boots, tents, sleeping bags and sunglasses are just the beginning. Prices are about 20 percent lower than at department stores, even for name brands such as The North Face and Kolon.

Some of the stores used to offer guided hiking tours. Tours may resume in spring if employees and customers express enough interest. Many sales assistants are also avid mountain hikers.

According to an employee at Banddoraepoch, the three most frequently climbed mountains in Korea are Bukhan Mountain, Dobong Mountain and Gwanak Mountain.


Children's clothes can be found for a steal at the market. These stores are also scattered throughout the market, but one department store that opened recently is Good & Good, open from 11 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Mesa has children's clothes on the third floor. The department store opens Monday and Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m; Tuesday to Saturday at 11 a.m. to 7 a.m., and Sunday at 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.


The building that has Longtemps Arte Arcade on the first floor is a treasure trove for fresh and artificial flowers. Flower shop owners and flower arranging specialists head to the third floor for the Ggot Sijang (Flower Market), open from 11 p.m. to 4 p.m.

This season, the scent of freesias and roses is overwhelming. Domestically grown tulips, iris, calla lilies and orchids mixed with baskets and ribbons create a visual feast. Merchants also welcome the public, and can create beautiful flower arrangements.


It was once illegal to sell bonded products at Namdaemun, but police were not able to completely shut down the black market scene. When police activity became too hot, merchants dealing in illegal goods temporarily closed their stores, creating a ghost market. Hence the area now known as E Dong Jiha used to be called Dokkaebi Sijang (The Phantom Market).

Despite this ignoble background, Dokkaebi Sijang is now established as the spot for imported goods. Korea's upper middle-class housewives know to go to Namdaemun for inexpensive and otherwise hard-to-find cheeses, meat, liqueurs, coffee, vitamins, condiments and clothes. Most stores open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.


For many tourists, their first shopping stop is Namdaemun Market, which also sells souvenirs. About 3,000 to 4,000 foreigners visit the market daily. Japanese tourists constitute 60 percent of the foreigners. Their top purchase is gim (dried seaweed). Namdaemun is known among Westerners for its leather goods.

Information booths are scattered throughout the market. Here you'll find maps and people able to field basic questions in English. Buyers and tourists can also find help on the 13th floor of MESA. For service in English and Japanese, call 02-2128-7800, or e-mail namdaemun@kotis.net.


How much is it? Eolmaeyo?

Give me a discount. Kkakkajuseyo.

Don't you have any other colors? Dareun saek-kal eobseoyo?

Don't you have any other sizes? Dareun saijeu (size) eobseoyo?

If the clothes are available in only one size, the reply you'll often hear sounds like: Free size ieyo.

Please give me one. Hana juseyo.

by Joe Yong-hee

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