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Nov 15, 2021

Best Hidden Vacation Spots in Korea 2

Sean Jee (insta @detailance)
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Camping in Hongcheon

I thought ten days on the beaches might be boring for my kids. Thankfully, one of my good friends offered for us to camp with him in Hongcheon and set everything up for us. So, we had a fun night in a tent.

The number of campsites and campers have increased significantly over the last few years, partially boosted by the pandemic. Most campsites are reservation only and public campsites run by local governments have better facilities and are cleaner in general. But it’s more competitive to make a reservation for public campsites.

Sambong Recreational Forest in Hongchoen, Gangwon-do, South Korea
Figure 1. Sambong recreational forest. There’s a small river flowing through the forest near our campsite.

We made a reservation for a Sambong forest campsite in Hongcheon. The campsite is located next to a small river running through the forest. Sambong forest campsite is really deep on a mountainside. During the Korean war, residents of this mountain didn’t even know about the war at all. It takes more than one and a half hours to reach from Sokcho and will take more from Seoul. You have to drive through winding mountain roads to go around a peak of about 1,000 meters (3,300’) high to get there. The campsite is that deep in the mountains.

Good campsites have tent platforms, which are usually wooden decks. Campers pitch tents on these wooden decks, which is better than camping on the ground as the platforms keeps the tents away from humidity and cold especially in the winter. The decks also provide an even floor for campers to rest comfortably.

It rained on the day we camped. So, I set up a camping tarp as well to keep everything from getting wet.

Campsite at Sambong Recreational Forest in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do, South Korea
Figure 2. How the campsite looks like with our tent pitched, along with my friend’s next to ours.

There are many glamping facilities available these days, but it is a rare opportunity to camp in the deep mountain like this for those who don’t have camping gear. One of the things I loved the most about this camping location was the calming background noise created by the raindrops on the tent, tweeting birds and the burble of the stream all together. They made perfect natural ASMR sounds. Back in Seoul, I sometimes play white noises to fall asleep but I don’t need them at all here in the forest.

I usually grill some BBQ when camping but chose shabu-shabu this time. It was hot early August when temperatures on the east coast beaches went up beyond 36⁰C (97⁰F). But it got as cold as 15⁰C (59⁰F) in the forest. Moreover, the rainy weather made me feel a little bit cold without a long sleeve shirt and coat.

Shabu-shabu with hot broth was a great choice for such weather. Everybody kept eating without a pause, from little kids to adults. Someone once said they go camping to eat outdoors. At that moment, I couldn’t agree more with whoever said that.

A small stream at Sambong Recreational Forest in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do, South Korea
Figure 4. It was raining all day, but the kids didn’t care at all. They were excited as long as there was water to play with.

Camping in Gangneung

In early July, my family also visited another campsite in front of the beach in Gangneung, Gangwon-do. Many beaches in the east coast have pine tree forests around them. The forests are open for camping and usually have wooden tent platforms in open spaces surrounded by pine trees.

My favorite thing about camping in one of the fine tree forests next to the beach is this—you can play hard on the beach and then take a quick rest in the forest and go back to the beach once refreshed. You can (and will) do it again and again. The fact that I could fall asleep with another type of natural white noise, wave sounds, was a big merit for me as well.

Camping offers so much more that hotels cannot match. There are more and more companies these days that rent everything you need for car camping, including a car. Leveraging such rental services, you can easily try camping in Korea to experience its unique camping culture without too much preparation.

A pine tree forest campsite in Gangneung, Gangwon-do, South Korea
Figure 5. A pine tree forest campsite in Gangneung, a beautiful forest available for camping located right next to the beach.

When I was a kid, summer vacation was more often than not called “an escape from the summer heat.” During the ten days of my summer vacation in the east coast, I found that was an exceptional expression. East coast waters were always cool or even cold in the middle of the hot summer days. So, people dive into the waters to run away from the hot summer. It’s literally an escape from the heat! We, those who chill on the east coast beaches, are the escapers.

My two little ladies and I successfully escaped from the summer heat on the beautiful beaches and mountains in Gangwon-do this summer. Well, maybe it makes more sense to say that we jumped into the waters to better enjoy the hot summer than to escape it. It’s already September. As a cool breeze started to take over from the hot summer wind, I missed summer 2021 already—I wish I had more fun! This summer’s just gone, but I already look forward to the next one!

Best food in Gangwon-do

I have a list of foods that I never forgo eating whenever I travel to Gangwon-do. As the entire shoreline of the province touches the East Sea, seafood such as sashimi and steamed fish are famous. Gangneung is so well known for Soondubu (one kind of tofu) that it has a Soondubu district where a collection of soondubu specialty restaurants are gathered together.

Some dishes are universally available anywhere in the region, but vary from town to town. The same food can taste subtly different in Goseong than in Sokcho, Yangyang or Gangneung. Here are a few of the dishes I had on my trip to Gangwon-do this summer.

Mak-guksu (buckwheat noodles)

In Gangwon-do, I think Mak-guksu restaurants could probably outnumber Chinese restaurants and snack bars collectively which are easily found anywhere in South Korea. There are so many mak-guksu restaurants in Gangwon-do that you cannot travel the region without running into one whether you like it or not.

Mak means “just” or “hungrily” based on context and guksu means noodles in Korean. It is known that Gangwon natives originally named the dish as mak-guksu for people who “hungrily” ate the noodles “just” cooked fresh out of the ingredients.

The noodles are made of buckwheat and mixed with cold, clear dongchimi water, various sauces or broths. Different cities in Gangwon-do have different styles of mak-guksu. Diners add additional items such as sugar, perilla oil and vinegar based on personal preferences. How you mix and match these additional items changes the taste of the same mak-guksu subtly, but noticeably. Broths have a lot of diversity as well, ranging from chicken to pork to dongchimi.

In short, everything is different depending on the restaurant you visit besides the fact that the noodles are made of buckwheat. Some restaurants use 100% buckwheat noodles whereas some mix wheat with buckwheat. Of those that combine buckwheat with wheat, the proportion of wheat in the noodles varies. Types of broths, sauces or gomyungs (toppings for Korean noodle dishes) are all different across restaurants in Gangwon-do. Such variety makes it a great fun to try new mak-guksu restaurants and their unique styles. Isn’t it great?

During my vacation, I visited five different mak-guksu restaurants with my kids. Two of them were very impressive. They are very popular with the locals as well.

Mak-guksu (buckwheat noodles)
Dongchimi
Figure 6, 7. Buckwheat noodles and cold dongchimi water to ladle over the noodles at Yeonggwangjeong.

Mak-guksu at Yeonggwangjeong tastes the best with perilla oil added. This place was made famous by Wednesday Food Talk, a popular TV show exploring great restaurants across South Korea. They have a simple menu of mak-guksu, pyeonyuk (boiled pressed meat), gamja jeon (Korean-style potato pancake) and jeonbyeong (chewy buckwheat crepe).

When you order mak-guksu, the noodles are served in a separate bowl with sauces and toppings on top with dongchimi water. You can ladle dongchimi and dongchimi water on the noodles according to your preferences.

The best recipe recommended by Yeonggwangjeong is to add two ladles of dongchimi water along with a little bit of vinegar, mustard, sugar and perilla oil. If you taste your mak-guksu step by step as you add these ingredients one by one, you can enjoy different tastes at every phase. Mak-guksu taste gradually changes as you add them sequentially. My mouth is watering even as I am writing this article!

Another great place is Samgyori Dongchimi Mak-guksu. It started out of Gangneung and then expanded to other cities in Gangwon, including Yangyang and Sokcho, and the Seoul metropolitan area. Their menu is not too different from Yeonggwangjeong. They offer three types of mak-guksu, including mul (non-spicy), bibim (spicy) and hoi (sashimi). Suyuk (boiled pork), memil jeon (Korean-style buckwheat pancake) and jeonbyeong (chewy buckwheat crepe) are also available.

Like at Yeonggwangjeong, buckwheat noodles come in a separate bowl with toppings and sauces (for bibim mak-guksu) with dongchimi water. You ladle dongchimi water to the noodles as you want.

I’m a big fan of mak-guksu. So are my kids. I always look for the food that both my daughters and I like as we always travel together. Mak-guksu is pretty popular with kids as it is not spicy and the dongchimi water adds sweetness to the dish. Moreover, there’s gamja jeon that goes perfectly well with mak-guksu. It’s not spicy or savory but tastes nutty and crunchy on the outer part.

Peach

If you have a chance to go to Yangyang, peaches are one of the items that you must eat there. If you drive, you will see a lot of trucks on the streets selling peaches and corn. They sell good peaches, but I recommend that you visit a traditional market in downtown Yangyang if you have time. If not, stop by Hanaro mart parking lot in Yangyang. There is a series of booths in front of the parking lot selling peaches. The booths have been there at their exact spots forever. They sell a variety of peaches by a full bucket classified by size and type of peaches. You can get any type of peaches you like—white or yellow peaches, nectarines, firm or relatively soft ones.

The sweet and fresh scent of the peaches will stimulate your nose as you drive closer to the booths. Once you get to know them, they just give away some peaches for free. The generosity makes me happy as I eat the peaches from the bucket coming back home.

Donghae Banjum

Mak-guksu restaurants are more popular than the Chinese restaurants in Gangwon-do as I mentioned earlier, but I really wanted to visit this place at least to satisfy my curiosity. This is the northernmost Chinese restaurant in Korea and where you can enjoy food looking at the ocean. It’s called Donghae Banjum in Goseong.

Honestly, their food wasn’t that awesome compared to other Chinese restaurants. But it’s worth the visit to eat jjajangmyeon while enjoying a stunning scene of the ocean in Goseong before my eyes.

I think Donghae Banjum gave us jjajangmyeon for free as a courtesy when we ordered fried dumplings and tangsuyuk. Their fried dumpling sauce was very unique and tasty anyway.

An amazing ocean view from Donghae Banjum
Figure 8. I had the luxury of eating jjajangmyeon while enjoying this beautiful ocean view.

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