Although the stereotype of only members of the US military frequenting Itaewon is well-known, in fact men from other areas of the world, including the Middle East and Africa, are known to frequent this area as well, and because South Korea is still not yet widely socially accepting of homosexuality, there is also an underground gay area in Itaewon.
After sunset on any given night, Korean prostitutes of varying levels of age and beauty enter the small bars on this little street to meet customers. Some will even wait out on the road. The current level of police pressure seems to dictate how wild their public behaviour will be. Korean women who work in the bars of Hooker Hill speak perfect English (so I’m told) and have experience with foreigners. Itaewon itself is a great place for foreigners and more than just for sex scene – it’s possibly the only place where you can feel at home with good international food and a clubbing scene (with the exception of Hongdae).
Hooker Hill is short in size but it is jam packed with little bars. At the very top of the hill there is a bar that I am told is popular with English teachers (who knows, maybe I might check this one out one day). If you go beyond this “teachers’ bar”, you enter the realm of the transgender bars. The women of Hooker Hill are dressed well, but I couldn’t help but think they looked like a tacky version of Kyoto’s geisha (geiko). In any case, there seemed to be a good number of choices of women for discerning visitors to Itaewon. I am told that the women of Hooker Hill take only one customer at a time to the back of the bars, with doors usually made of black tinted glass, or even metal, and once you enter, the door is locked behind you to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
When you come to Seoul, perhaps the last thing you think about is Turkish food, but I found a small shop here in Itaewon that was selling not only Turkish kebabs but also dondurma ice cream! Heaven! Shame that it was closed, though. My heart sank. Dondurma is my favourite kind of ice cream and it is quite hard to find outside of Turkey (not available anywhere in my regular haunts of London and Singapore, for example). Oh well, there were at least plenty of Indian restaurants. I wondered if Koreans owned and ran the restaurants here or if they were ran by part of the expat community for which Itaewon is well-known.
Itaewon is known (well, apart from the hookers) for its extensive selection of foods of the world, and there was even a Spanish café that specialised in churros! I was flabbergasted to see a churro hotdog, where the sausage was lined inside the actual churro (instead of a bread roll). It was certainly a unique invention!
American people are everywhere in Itaewon. Most visitors to Seoul know that Itaewon is the place where American soldiers and expats hang out and as such there is a lot of American bars and restaurants on the high streets. One such place is Linus BBQ, which seems to be something of a favourite haunt among backpackers – it was packed to the rafters! Still, the food is amazing in there and very good value. If you had those ribs in the USA, it would probably cost twice as much. I always wondered what Koreans thought of American food – would they prefer to eat their own cuisine (i.e. jokbal, bibimbap, hobakjuk) or is the term “fancy an American?” something that Korean families will say when they can’t be bothered to cook?!
Mexican food is also prevalent in Itaewon. One of the most famous eateries here is Vatos Tacos. Sumptuous gourmet tacos at cheap and cheerful prices – perfect for a budget traveller like me! This was probably my favourite place in Itaewon and I returned for more tacos the next day (well, I can’t live on yang yeum all the time!). I just can’t understand how people can come to Itaewon and only think about prostitution when you’ve got some of the best international food in all of Seoul on your doorstep, but then again, sex sells, right?