The best place for a summer vacation? HomeThe weather was hot, Seoul was steaming and an escape to the countryside for a few days sounded inviting.
Of course, there were cautions. This newspaper and all the others have a summer photo staple: Haeundae Beach in Busan, where during the summer you can’t see the beach for the humanity. And a couple of weeks ago, the Joong-Ang Daily had a story about the price-gouging that was going on at popular vacation resorts.
So we made appropriate plans: a three-day, two-night getaway with some flexibility built in. A day and a night at Daecheon Beach, on the west coast in South Chungcheong province; then back to Spavis, a resort spa in southern Gyeonggi province, and the final day at Caribbean Bay, a water park at the Everland resort.
If one place turned out to be uncomfortable or too crowded, we would just move on to the next and spend some extra time there. We thought the beach would be the dicey part ― remember those pictures of Haeundae?
We left at about 8:30 a.m. Traffic was fairly light ― a good omen ― and after a few stops for breakfast and stretching, we reached the beach at about 11:30 a.m. The first surprise was how uncrowded the beach was. It was wide, and although by no means deserted, there was plenty of unoccupied sand.
The general, the boss of our party of four, began preparing for the day; the first task was to rent a shady place to sit. Then we hit our first surprise of the day: It was 40,000 won, about $35, to rent one of four low tables under a canvas awning. An inner tube for the kids? Ten thousand won each. A washable tattoo that the little girl couldn’t live without? Another 10,000 won. “Man won” seemed to be the base price for about everything.
But never mind. It was a sunny day, there was room for the children to play on the beach, the water was cool and all was well.
As the afternoon progressed, though, the tide began coming in and sun-seekers continued to arrive. Now, on a sloping beach, even a small increase in the ocean’s height can translate into a pretty substantial change in the beach area available. Inexorably, the spread-out beach umbrellas and blankets were moved, and the huddled mass of humanity was being compressed between the advancing sea and the seawall.
Now we were getting a taste of Haeundae’s crowding. Only a taste, though. By now, everyone was mellow, and there was still plenty of time to relax in reasonable comfort until the sun went down.
Until the drunk arrived, that is.
He wasn’t an aggressive drunk; he was pretty amiable, in fact, but he was persistent. Attracted by a foreign face, the only one on the beach, he wanted to be friends.
He wanted to share his soju. He wanted to see what was inside my beach bag. Rebuffed, he wanted to sit on the sand next to our table and sing songs at the top of his voice. His off-key melodies were competing with the constant blaring of a loudspeaker summoning parents to pick up lost children.
Ignored, he returned to the table and began rummaging through our things again. A Korean man at the next table tried to remonstrate with him, but the drunk just grinned and persisted. “Don’t try to stop me,” he said at one point. “I’m a gangster.”
I considered decking him, but didn’t know how much trouble that would get me into, so I went off to find a policeman. He followed, now telling me that he was a policeman and would help me. “And I’m Roh Moo-hyun,” I told him. He seemed impressed for a moment, and then apparently realized that the president wasn’t a foreigner. I finally managed to lose him.
Korea has a hierarchy of lodging places. There are hotels of various numbers of stars, then love hotels, then yeogwan, or inns, then minbak, which are either spartan inns or rooms in private homes.
Minbak are very humble places with what are supposed to be humble prices, and we looked for one that had a couple of vacancies. We found that a minbak in Daecheon during the summer school vacation ― basically a room with sleeping mats but no other furniture ― cost 120,000 won a night.
And none of the restaurants or lodging houses in the area took credit cards or gave receipts. The mountains are are high and the emperor is far away, and no little detail like tax payments was going to stop these entrepreneurs from cashing in on the high season.
The next morning, we set off for Spavis, an upscale resort that we had enjoyed once before. It has indoor and outdoor swimming pools and men’s and women’s saunas. But there was one problem: If there were a limit on the number of people they admitted, it must have been a limit based on some pretty strange assumptions.
The result was bedlam. Wall-to-wall float toys, children careening off bodies as they raced around the slippery pool decks, hip-hop music blaring, interspersed with more announcements for parents to retrieve lost children. At last, we had found the real Korean summer vacation ― it was Haeundae North.
I retreated to the men’s solarium with a book. The general’s son came looking for me after about an hour; she and the children had decided to surrender. The crowds were too much for them.
We held a council of war. What next? Do we dare try Caribbean Bay? Do they limit the number of guests? No one was sure, and even if they had capacity limits, what was their estimate of a tolerable crowd?
After some debate, we decided that a breezy apartment in Seoul didn’t look so bad anymore. We cut the trip short and returned to the city.
Lesson learned: Korea’s countryside is beautiful, but not at the height of the summer vacation season. Then, there’s no place like home.
by John Hoog