The dirty side of Haeundae
Haeundae Beach in Busan is where all the glitz is. It’s where you can pay hundreds of dollars a night to sleep at the Westin Chosun, water ski for equally exorbitant sums and eat overpriced Indian food. But down at the other end of the beach, down a little cracked-asphalt avenue that winds along the rocky shore, there’s a dirty side. Oh yes. Down there you can spy a booty cheek, eat flounder with the soju-reddened locals and wonder whether that heavily made up woman is a prostitute.
The dirty side of Haeundae begins when, walking east, you see the first “T-panty.” It continues on to the area around the jetty, an area that is filled with more seafood restaurants than you could shake a gochu at, and plenty of love motels. It extends out to Jangsan, a steep mountain close to the beach.
This is dirty Haeundae, the Haeundae that’ll be easier on your wallet and give you a few stories, too.
Might as well start with the dirtiest sight on the beach: the smallest T-panty you’ve ever seen. And by T-panty I mean thong (T-panty is what the locals call it). When you see a German man wearing one in Thailand you’re filled with a mixture of pity, disgust and malice. But imagine this: Haeundae in September; the weather is glorious; the water is warm. People all around you are enjoying the beach in … jeans? GORE-TEX jackets? Silver suits? What is happening?
You wade into the water, further, further, past the red buoys that sit ten meters off the shore, and … zoom. A large red machine is speeding toward you. You’re reprimanded by two dudes in full black wet suits, wide-brim hats and sunglasses. They’re riding a jet ski and pose more of a danger to everyone in the water than any riptide within ten miles, but this is their beach. Go back, within the confines of the buoys, they say. With all the inappropriately dressed people.
You leave the water, dejected, wandering aimlessly east. Then you see it: the man is so bronzed he is an Aztec god returned to earth in Korean form. He’s playing volleyball and his booty is draped with a thong so tiny it must be a children’s thong. It covers at most five percent of his ass. OK, kudos to him for wearing beach gear to the beach – well, maybe he went too far – no, the man has balls and you respect that, and you can see them.
You have seen the T-panty.
You can eat Indian food in Seoul. What you need in Busan is the sea made soup. Fish, crabs and octopus moving around on your plate. And eating this way is so much cheaper than the ritzy places further west.
Start with daegutang at Sokshiwonhan Daegutang, on the first floor of the Hotel Navi. The restaurant is huge, and every table will be taken – a good sign.
They serve three things: cod soup, cod on a plate and … omelets? Go with daegutang, the cod soup. It’s the most popular item on the menu and comes in a beautiful metal bowl. The soup has an artful presentation: chunks of white fish floating in pale, cloudy broth; it’s garnished with a slice of white radish and green onions aplenty.
The broth is really the best thing about the dish. It’s rich and contains the essence of meaty fish. The chunks of cod are nice too, if you can get past the copious bones that come with them. Every bowl comes with some cod head, too. Look out for that succulent eyeball.
Another good place to try is Sae-ah-chim Mat-chim, just west of the Hotel Navi. Their specialty is also fish, and they serve theirs with bowls of thick kimchi chiggae. This time you get the whole fish, all fried up with chili peppers and green onions. The fish in this case is the red bigeye, a bright red fish with, you guessed it, huge eyes. You can’t really tell the fish is red after it’s been fried and covered with sauce, nor can you discern its unique taste, but it is tasty. The gruff ajumma who runs the joint might seem perturbed by your presence, but the food is good.
And of course there are the fish markets. There’s a gleaming new building called Haeundae Sea Land that overlooks a small wharf on the other side of the jetty and inside is a small fish market. You can get the usual things in and around the market, in addition to such oddities as puffer fish, flying gurnards and many other small, colorful fish that are surely not worth the trouble. They also have shellfish, including king crabs that sell for – ready? – 90,000 won ($76) per kilo, which is about the same price as uranium.
Room with a view
Surrounding the mini-wharf is a cluster of love motels that offer prices much lower than Haeundae’s reputable hotels. The Universe Motel has rooms with huge bay windows that overlook the ocean for 70,000 won a night. With that comes a hot tub, a glass shower box that doubles as a sauna and two big-screen TVs.
The Universe is still unmistakably a love motel, despite its considerable amenities. Notice the sink just drains onto the floor. The TV is askew. The glass is etched with a woman in a position of ecstasy, her nipples exposed, yearning to be tweaked.
But aside from that, the floor is nice white tiles and the air conditioner blows cold air. Crack the window and listen to waves and seagulls. And there’s the view. My god, the view.
Risk your life on Jangsan
Just minutes away from Haeundae by cab is Jangsan, a mountain covered with land mines. It’s a steep four-kilometer hike to the summit. You’ll get sweaty on the way up, but the normal joys of Korean hiking are present: a man selling melon Popsicles and a restaurant selling makgeolli.
The makgeolli restaurant is really the unique thing about this hike, aside from the mines. Imagine a nondescript chiggae joint transported to a mountainside, overgrown with vines and populated with genial mountain folk. The building is made of decaying concrete and surrounded by ramshackle furniture. Trekkers come and go dressed in technical gear that would suffice on a much greater mountain. Bottle upon bottle of Busan makgeolli is stacked against the building in yellow crates. The restaurant overlooks little plots of farmland. The view is nice from here, but nothing compared to what awaits at the summit.
About three quarters of the way up, the trail becomes lined with razor wire. Signs appear, simple at first, then more ornate. The first is a small triangle that warns of a “mine zone” past the razor wire. The second is a larger sign, still in print. The third is a huge sign with a picture of a boot stepping on a land mine, a fiery blast rising up from the mine. The fourth is an even more graphic picture, this time of a boot stepping on a mine, except the whole toe of the boot is completely severed and blood or fire is gushing from the wound.
Eventually the mine zone gives way to a straight-up military installation. The summit is up there with the base, strewn with boulders that make for good stoops. The view from the summit is well worth the hike. You don’t realize how big or beautiful Busan is until you gaze down upon it from that height.
After a dirty time at Haeundae, the best thing to do is get clean at the Vesta jjimjilbang, up the little hill that overlooks the mini-wharf area. The sauna is serene, but the best part is once again the view. Soak in the usual pools while gazing out over the ocean through the sauna’s wall of windows. Vesta is peaceful, the way a sauna should be. No kids doing cannonballs in the cold pool, at least not while I was there.
And so we conclude our tour of the less-visited side of Haeundae. Next time you visit Busan, get dirty.