The Han River splits the city of Seoul neatly in two. North of the river lies the city’s past: huge, stately palaces; winding neighborhoods full of handsome hanok (traditional Korean houses); and monolithic gates that mark where defensive walls once stood. South of the Han is Seoul’s future: Yeoido, the financial center of Korea; endless high-rise apartment buildings marching through what just a few decades ago was sleepy farm land; and some of the most expensive real estate on the peninsula. The Han River is where Seoul’s ten million plus inhabitants go to unwind on a weekend afternoon, taking advantage of the myriads of parks and recreational facilities that line its banks. It’s also where Bong Joon-Ho set some of the key scenes in his 2006 film The Host. I had come here on a foggy Sunday morning in October with the purpose of walking the river’s length within the boundaries of the city, both to try and find some of the locations used in the film and to get a better sense of the importance of the river to the city of Seoul.
The Han Gang, as it is known in Korean, is the fourth longest river on the Korean peninsula, and is unique among the world’s major rivers for being so unused. Although it passes through one of the most populated cities in the world and could provide a shipping route to the interior of the country, the only boats plying its waters are those towing water skiers. This is because the mouth of the Han is located practically on the border with North Korea and is thus completely blocked to traffic. Nets stretch from bank to bank, and guard towers line the river from mouth to city. This is not just paranoia—North Korean boats periodically attempt to infiltrate the river. Low-lying bridges and water-diversion schemes also ensure that no river invasion is possible. Because of this, the Han River is something of a respite in the middle of the city, an almost pastoral waterway in the center of a 21st century megalopolis.
It’s this haven-like atmosphere, with public pools, jogging and bike paths, and space to relax and unwind, which probably appealed to Bong Joon-Ho. What better place to set a monster movie than where Seoul goes to play? Although the banks are lined with green, the river itself is always gray and foreboding, its depths hidden from view. And it can be eerily quiet; almost too quiet for a big city river. Its calmness belies a terrible tension and hidden danger, whether from a monster born from pollution or a belligerent neighbor in the north.
I started my walk at the northwest end of the river, not quite on the border as I had planned but close enough. Although it was early in the day the paths were already full, with people walking, jogging and riding bikes. It has to be said that Koreans do nothing half-assed (except maybe build houses). When they start an activity, they really go all out. Although no one was going very fast, all the bicyclists were kitted out like it was the Tour De France, with aerodynamic helmets, form-fitting clothing and the latest fancy bikes. I even passed an open-air stall selling all manner of bike gear and clothes.
I was keeping my eyes open for bridges or locations that looked familiar from the movie. The trouble is, almost the entire length of the Han has paved paths, which makes it all look the same. Also, there is something like 27 bridges that cross the river and very few are iconic enough to stick in the mind. Every bridge I passed was compared to a still from the film, scrutinized, and then dismissed as yet another unremarkable non-Host bridge. After a few hours of walking along the north bank I crossed the Rainbow Bridge, which straddles Seonyudo, an island park of verdant green that I marked down for a later visit, and continued east along the south bank, the skyscrapers of Yeoido ahead breaking through the fog.
Yeoido, which is technically an island, although you could practically jump across the canal that separates it from the mainland, is the financial center of Seoul and a place I had never been to before. Although the sun was still hidden by gray clouds, day-trippers began to arrive, setting up day-use tents, with families planted on colorful mats spread out on the grass along the riverbank. People trooped back and forth to the convenient stores set back just off the path for instant noodles and beer. Although I passed plenty of 7-11s and Family Marts that day, I was never able to find any kind of privately owned snack shacks like those that the Park family operates in The Host.
I had been walking for two hours and had almost given up on finding the location of the scene where the monster first emerges from the water when I noticed the Seogangdae Bridge stretching across the water. Could it be? There was the red span, the parkland underneath it, and the cityscape behind it. I pulled out my phone and compared the movie screen shot to the real thing. It was a match! Although there was no snack shack, and a few other details were wrong (such as no adjacent parking lot), Yeoido Riverside Park was undoubtedly where Bong Joon-Ho shot the scene where the monster first appears, rampages through the park, and snatches up little Hyun-Seo.
I sat down on a bench near the water’s edge to enjoy the view and, it has to be said, take a break from the walking. My lifestyle unfortunately could be described as a baby step above sedentary. Being a teacher, I stand a lot but my feet aren’t used to the kind of beating they were getting this day. I was determined, however, to make it all the way to the city line, my feet be damned.
A friend called and wanted to join my walk, so we agreed to meet at the 63 Building (officially 63 City), the tallest building in Seoul, on the east end of Yeoido. The 63 Building isn’t much to look at on an overcast day but when the sun is setting, its gold panels catch the rays of the sun and it lights up like a great flame. Although I had never been there before, it wasn’t hard to find, what with the height and all, and after a quick lunch of noodles in the building food court we were back outside, walking along the Han.
The next stretch of the journey, which was along a dismal covered path heading east from Yeoido, was devoid of any greenery at all. Entirely concrete, what little sunlight there was completely obscured by the overhead expressway, this stretch of the Han did little to encourage the fatigued walker. Depressing little beaches could be seen along the water’s edge and graffiti marked where someone thought they were being clever. We wondered if Bong Joon-Ho had filmed the scenes with the homeless man here but really that could have been anywhere. There certainly weren’t any homeless people here. It was too depressing even for them.
Finally we emerged into light and life, another long park stretching ahead, hugging the water like a long snake. It was early afternoon now and families and couples had claimed almost every free space on the grass. It was getting hot as well, so we stopped at one of the many chain convenient stores for ice cream. We sat on a low concrete wall to eat and watched a group of college students look for something they had lost in the grass. I rubbed my feet, which were really starting to smart, and I turned my socks inside out, hoping to avoid getting any blisters under my toes.
Pleasure boats and jet skis aren’t the only craft on the Han. Ferries and water taxis chug back and forth across the one-kilometer width of the river, taking locals and tourists from one side to the other. Deciding that the grass was greener on the northern side of the river, we stopped at a water taxi stand, hoping to avoid having to walk across on a bridge. There was no taxi waiting and a phone call to the printed number revealed that we would have to wait for another hour for one to arrive. It was at this point that my friend revealed that she was feeling pretty tired, and would I mind if we cheated and skipped ahead using a form of non-river-based transportation? I considered the state of my feet, said no, I really didn’t mind, and soon we were zipping east along the expressway, the Han visible to our left. “Look, we haven’t really left the river,” I remarked to my friend, “so this isn’t really cheating.”
The taxi dropped us at the riverside park in Jamsil, on the east end of the city. It was the last major park before another stretch of urban pathways and it was at this point that I realized that I didn’t have the heart to keep going. My feet were practically screaming now and I knew I’d be in trouble if I didn’t listen to their grievances. Besides, it was getting late and I still had to take a bus back to my provincial town and get ready for the following day’s work.
With no family snack shacks to eat at, we opted for a 7-11 and got beer and squid jerky to go. We sipped beer and chewed salty squid tentacles on the river’s edge, watching people—many visibly drunk—emerge from a ferry that had just completed a loop on the Han. I felt bad for a moment about not finishing the walk—not to mention for cheating by taking a taxi—but really, this is what a day on the Han should be about. Whenever my head co-teacher wants me to try some odd-looking food or have yet another drink, he tells me, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” To which I tell him, “This isn’t Rome.” But for sure, when in Seoul, do as the Koreans do. Head down to the Han, spread out a blanket, grab some snacks from the nearest convenient store and just enjoy yourself.
As for the monster, the only really frightening thing I saw that day was located between my toes. There was a blister the size of a fava bean waiting for me that night and it terrorized my every step for weeks.
Add To The Experience
A visit to the banks of the Han should be on the itinerary of any visitor to Seoul but there’s really no good reason to walk the length of it. Should you want to get a sense of the river, though, it’s easy enough to rent a bike from a riverside park and see the sites that way. Also check out our review of The Host here.