Restaurant Review: Vietnam Restaurant and Mart

Spring Rolls

Fried Spring Rolls

Pho Bo

Pho Bo

What this place lacks in decor and ambiance, it makes up for in authenticity and taste.  Don’t be fooled by the dilapidated exterior of the building and the exposed kitchen and appliances indoors.  They’re serving Vietnamese food miles beyond what you’ll find in Gwangju (those Vietnamese chain restaurants basically serve Korean food for twice the price).

 

 

Walking in, I was met by a small Vietnamese server and a handful of younger Vietnamese friends having lunch…always a good sign to see actual Vietnamese people in a Vietnamese restaurant.  Rumors of Bahn Mi sandwiches proved false (possibly sold out?)  (update: been back a couple of times and still no Bahn Mi sandwiches) so we opted for the litmus test of Vietnamese food:  Pho and Spring Rolls.

It wasn’t cheap at 24,000 for two people, but two bowls of soup and a plate of spring rolls was more than enough to fill us up and ultimately well worth the price.  Simply put, it was delicious. (The fresh spring rolls are better than the fried)

This place is also a mart selling Vietnamese snacks and ingredients.  The mart is in the back, where you will also find additional seating.  The best part is they sell fresh cilantro if you ask nicely…2,000 for a large handful.

The location is pretty easy to find as it’s close to the river, noodle street, and one of the most famous restaurants in town, SeungIl Shikdang (승일 식당).  Here’s the google map link.  Just in case, here’s the map from my phone:

If you have room for dessert, head down to the river and get in line with the rest of these suckers and buy some of the “famous” Damyang donuts 🙂

 

Hiking: Jishil Valley (The Mountains Behind The House)

This is the 5km dog-friendly hike I’ll recommend to you when you visit and be secretly disappointed when you provide some thin excuse the next day as to why you couldn’t fit it in your schedule.  My disappointment lies in the fact that this trail is nearly perfect in so many ways.

For starters, it offers more “bang for your buck” than any trail in the area.  It’s got a bamboo forest, a pine forest, giant boulders, ancient pagodas and a pretty amazing overlook just towards the end that acts as the cherry on top (it’s all downhill from there!).

Spring

Summer

Fall

Winter

Next, it’s extremely accessible.  The trailhead is in the front yard (literally) and the trail ends just on the other side of the village.  No need to walk along the busy main road, ride a bike or drive anywhere.

 

 Start at 12 (the house) finish at 1 (Shikyoungjung)

Lastly, it’s the perfect length; long, but not too long.  At around 2 hours, it’s just long enough to make it feel like you accomplished something and earned that second helping of chicken pot pie.  You can even cheat and head straight up to the overlook by doing the hike in reverse.  From the front door you can be looking out over the entire valley and Mudeung National Park while enjoying a cup of makoli in less than 20 minutes (double that if you’re my wife).

 

The hike itself is fairly easy to navigate, but here’s the play by play just to help eliminate a least one of the more common excuses (getting lost).

In the front yard, to the left of the fence, you’ll find the trail.  This trail runs behind the fence and out to the road in the village so it’s not uncommon to see hikers passing through.

The trail from the front yard

The trail leading into the bamboo forest

This trail leads through a thick bamboo forest that gradually thins out as you go up the mountain.  Even if you’re not interested in hiking the whole trail, do yourself a favor and at least walk through the bamboo forest.  It’s what Damyang is famous for and pretty cool to have right at your fingertips.  Bonus points if you go in there at night (spoiler alert: it’s terrifying).

At the top of the first climb, you’ll come to a small ridge and a trail marker.  Here’s the secret to this hike: take a left EACH time you see one of these trail markers.  That will loop you back around the valley to the other side of the village.

 


As I mentioned, after the first climb and at the first trail marker you’ll take a left (always a left) and continue up the mountain (if you take a right you’ll end up at Sosaewon).  It’s a fair bit of uphill, but I promise it’s worth it.  It gets rocky towards the  top and you’ll start realizing how high up you are!

 


After a couple of left turns and a couple of climbs/descents, you’ll end up at the overlook.  There are actually two overlooks.  The one on the left overlooks the Jishil Valley and of course Mudeung National Park.

 

 

 

The overlook on the right provides views of Gwangju Lake.

 

 

The overlook is a good place to relax and soak in the views.  It’s all downhill from here back to the house so take a break and continue down the trail when you’re ready.  When you reach the pine forest you’re very near the end of the trail and its ultimate destination:  The National Heritage site of Shikyungjung.


As you exit the pine forest continue walking towards the pagoda and ultimately down the stone staircase.

 


This small park has four or five pagodas and is a popular tourist attraction for the bus loads of Korean tourists that visit during the summer.  It also attracts a lot of photographers and can be very scenic with dramatic changes throughout the year.  Here’s my best effort:

 

 


From Shikyungjung you will be able to see the poetry museum.  Behind the museum you will find a small village road that will take you back to the house and offer one last glimpse of Mudeung National Park.

Poetry Museum

If you have a bit more time and energy, walk across to the Eco-Park and watch the sun set!  Enjoy.

 

 

Bike’n Hike (V): Yulpo Beach via Mudeung National Park and Boseong Green Tea Fields

Destination:  Yulpo Beach
Cycling:  84km
Hiking:  0km
Cyclemeter Link

Yulpo Beach isn’t the best beach in Jeolla-Do by any stretch, but it makes a great place to finish a long day of cycling.  A day of cycling through the iconic Boseong green tea fields no-less.  And even a shitty beach is still a beach!

This ride starts like most others; head out to the main road and take a left on 887.  Even the first 200 meters to the main road has it’s scenic moments!

 
Head south on 887 up the valley and through the tunnel for about 8.5km.  Here’s the valley you’ll be riding through from a bird’s eye view (Taken from the overlook accessible via the trail behind 식영정). 

About 8.5km up the valley you’ll need to take a right on road 897.  All I can say is it’s just after the abandoned elementary school, which is on the right side of the road and difficult to miss.  This used to be a gravel road, but has recently been paved and is now excellent for cycling! 

Continue on this road for about 14km.  You’ll wind through a yet another scenic valley and have plenty of opportunities to see Mudeung from it’s less famous back-side.  Eventually you’ll head uphill and pass a reservoir.

Just after the reservoir you get to enjoy an absolutely gratifying descent through yet another valley.  Climbing this beast from the other direction is grueling so be thankful you’re headed downhill!

At the bottom of the valley you’ll need to take a right (south) on 15.  You’ll stay on 15, which for a double digit road isn’t bad at all, for about 16km.  Eventually the road intersects with Juam lake which is massive (obviously man-made) and fills in the surrounding valley forming an elongated amoeba shape.  This lake, and the overlapping roads and subsequent bridges, could be amazing save for all the garbage collecting in every corner.  Frustrating to say the least.

At the junction with 18, where you should take a right, there is a small mart (휴게소) offering an extensive menu of water, chips and ramen. There isn’t much before this so if you’re hungry it works.  Good place to stock up on water if nothing else. 

18 takes you almost all the way to the beach.  It’s a pretty road and, at least when I was there, not too much traffic.  I even found a really cool Eco-Park that was completely deserted.

Near Boseong city you will of course start seeing the iconic green tea fields.  Don’t waste you time or energy stopping to take photos of the first couple you see.  Trust me it gets way better.  There are a few small climbs mixed in here, but nothing I remember being too extreme…at least going this direction (if you’re riding back it’s a different story!).

At the bottom of the epic downhill finishing off road 18 you’ll see signs for Yulpo Beach, but if not just take a left on 845.  That will take you directly to the beach where you’ll find lots of tacky neon, plenty of minbaks, and copious amounts of cold beer and seafood! 

Green tea ice cream no your thing?  Plenty of other options here.

Cycling: Damyang – Course 1

I’ve documented a lot of rides around Jeollanam-Do, Damyang specifically, most of which can be found here.  Be forewarned, I am not a fan of river path cycling in Korea and this ride is no exception.  This particular course loops through the mountains and countyside roads of southern Damyang, just east of Gwangju (riding from Gwangju via Mudueng National Park would add an extra 20ish km each way). The cyclemeter link can be found here.

From The Damyang House the first 20km of this 55km/2.5 hour ride are on road 887…simply head out to the main road and take a left.  You’ll climb up through the valley the house is in and ultimately pass through a tunnel.

After the tunnel keep heading straight on 887.  It’s clearly marked and an easy ride.  The local makoli bootlegger is up on your left, just across from the abandoned elementary school if you’re feeling thirsty.

You’ll eventually pass Aquana, which is the least fun looking resort/water park I’ve ever seen.  You’ll also start seeing a lot of signage for the dinosaur footprint park that is close by…it’s a pretty park, but like all the other tourist attractions around here, it’s pretty much empty.  Not a bad place to stop for a snack though, just don’t expect much out of those dinosaur footprints.

Here they are!

Keep riding until you see the sign for Daedeok.  Take a left here and follow this road through the farming valley.  Part of what makes this course so great is that these old valley roads have been left largely unused due to newer, bigger, and faster expressways built over the last couple of decades.  Just you and the rice farmers!

 

There isn’t necessarily a climb to speak of, although you do sort of wind your way up through the valley.  You’re met with a nice view at the top and a long decent you’ll feel like you didn’t earn.

Follow this down to the junction with road 60 and take a left towards Changpyeong.  More downhill!

At this point you have some options.  You could easily explore the “slow city” in Changpyeong, get some lunch and continue on road 60 until it reconnects with 887 which if you take a left, will take you back to the house. You might regret it though as the best has yet to come.

Personally, I recommend taking a left off of road 60 towards Yucheon-ri (유천리) and straight into the belly of this beast:

Even the photo came out scary looking!  For good reason as this old unused road takes you pretty much straight over those mountains.  It’s not long, maybe 30 minutes (if you’re in shape), but it’s steep (10%) with lots of switchbacks.   This is what the road looks like from near the top.

You can see the road way off in the distance!

As you slowly start climbing the mountain you will be rewarded with better and better views of Damyang and the surrounding mountain range. I really need to get a proper camera because these photos don’t really do it justice.

You can see the Hanok Village in the foreground.

A bit mind-blowing, but from this mountain pass it’s downhill all the way to the house.  Put on some headphones and enjoy the ride through yet another gorgeous valley.  Just don’t forget to take a right when you intersect with road 887!

Hiking: A (Dog-Friendly) Walk Through the Rice Paddies

Your dogs will thank you for the opportunity to run around along these empty service roads!


Dog friendly areas are few and far between in this country, even outside of city limits.  I’ve written about some of the dog friendly hiking trails here, but another hidden gem (and more of a walk/less of a hike) is the rice paddies in front of our village or behind the Eco-Park/Gwangju Lake parking lot (if you drive there, walk up the road behind the 7-11).Lucky for us the family friendly Eco-Park attracts all the attention and leaves these intersecting farm roads, connecting a vast stretch of rice paddies, virtually empty.  It’s pretty much a “locals only” hangout, which is strange because once in this valley you have almost a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains…most of which are Mudeung National Park.Once in the valley it’s easy to explore and difficult to get lost.  You could walk for 30 minutes or a few hours depending on your route…the options are plentiful.  However, just to get you started, this is our “go-to” route for an after dinner dog walk.  It’s about 40 minutes and a nice loop.  Here’s the cyclemeter link if you think you need it.From the house, walk out to the main road.

 


Take a right at the main road and look for the service road/bridge that crosses the river…take a left down that road.


Take a left where this road dead-ends (a right will simply take you to the Eco-Park/7-11).


Take the first left down in the rice paddies and feel free to explore!  Or continue to follow my directions for the aforementioned 40 minute loop.

 

 

 


Follow this service road as it winds around towards the cows.  At the cows, take a left.


And take the next left (about two minutes).  And the next left after that (about 10 minutes…you’ll see more cows lol).  After that you’ll want to take a left at the pottery studio (which is number 14 on our top 20 things to do at The Damyang House list).  Here’s what you’re looking for:


After that you’ll follow this road until you intersect with the road you came in on…take a right and head home!

Bike’n Hike (VI): Naejangsan National Park

Destination:  Naejangsan National Park

Cycling:  120km
Hiking:  12km
Days:  2
 NaeJangsan National Park

The Bike’n Hike concept was born out of a failed backpacking trip to Jirisan National Park in February of 2014.  For whatever reason the logistics of that trip weren’t coming together so we opted to ditch the car, grab some bikes and head to a closer National Park.  That park was of course Naejangsan.  Since February we have done six Bike’n Hike trips to five of the surrounding National Parks…three of those trips were to this little park to the north.  It’s not by accident that we keep returning.

Traditionally these mini-bike tours have been a minimum of three days.  This was our first attempt to squeeze it all in a weekend.  Luckily we weren’t without willing participants.  Gibby and Jay were the first two to arrive from Seoul and after a bit of drama with cranky taxi drivers and unwelcome rain storms, we headed to a local 고기 집 to fill up on BBQ and booze and wait for the others.

“One Dish”
Once Sunghoon and John arrived in Gwangju we quickly met up and set off for The Damyang House,  which would serve as our home base of sorts for the weekend.  The slick (wet) roads prevented us from taking the scenic route through Mudeung National Park, but it was dark and getting late anyhow so it seemed a better use of time to head straight back to the house.  The ride itself is under 20km and less than an hour.  The rain had stopped at some point during dinner so we were able to avoid getting soaked on the ride home and had an opportunity to enjoy a campfire and the surrounding bamboo forest once we arrived. 
 Relaxin’.
The Damyang House

The next morning we scraped together a nice breakfast, got our gear in order and hit the road.

 The Crew
 Our Departure
Not everyone was happy about us leaving.
One of the (many) appealing aspects of the trip to Naejangsan is the roads that lead to and from the park.  They’re well maintained and largely underused so traffic is never really an issue.  There are two climbs during the 50km ride to the park entrance, but without them the day might be too easy.  Not to mention, the descent into the park makes it absolutely worth it!
 Moments before disaster…sorry Gibby!
A quick rest before the big climb of the day.

The climb begins.
We arrived at the park in under four hours, which gave us plenty of time to tackle the “hike” portion of the Bike’n Hike adventure.  The relatively easy ride to the park is quickly forgotten once you hit the park trails…they’re unforgiving and head pretty much straight up to the mountain ridge that circles around the park.  We were in a race with time (sunset) so completing the ridge hike was out of the question as it takes pretty much all day to hit all eight peaks.  It’s highly recommended if you have the time though…it’s an incredible hike.  Our goal was simply to get up to the ridge, grab a few photos and bask in the sense of accomplishment.  After four hours of cycling that’s easier said than done.  
 Getting closer.
 We made it!
Feeling accomplished!
 Taking a break.
 Our view.
 Exploring.
 Time to head back.
After climbing down the mountain we hopped back on our bikes and rode the 2km back to the park entrance where you’ll find a street of restaurants, a minbak neighborhood and a bit of nightlife (read: a CU Mart).  There are loads of cheap minbaks (about 10,000/person) clustered together at the top of the hill.  The lady at 촛불 is especially nice and her minbak sits highest up on the hill with a red sign.  You can’t miss it.  
   촛불민박
The restaurants around aren’t really anything to write home about honestly.  They are loads of them, but they oddly all serve the same menu.  I’ve been to five or six of them and can’t say anything really stood out enough that I’d recommend it.  If nothing else it’s a good place to catch your breath with some 동동주 and 파전 post-hike.  
We hit the CU after dinner for a few beers and made friends with some of the local wildlife.  As the temperature dropped and fatigue slowly set in we said goodbye to our new friend and got some much needed rest.
Praying Mantis
The next morning we headed towards the nearest town, Jeong-Eup, to get breakfast at a restaurant we found last time we were in the area.  This place is much cheaper and the food is a thousand times better…sadly I didn’t get a photo or even the name of the place!  I can say it’s on the right side of the road, just past the turnoff for road 21 that leads you back towards Damyang (and up the biggest climb of the day!).  The turn for road 21 isn’t clearly marked when heading north on road 49 towards Jeong-Eup so look for the big red love motel…this is where you’ll need to take a right!
Big Red Love Motel
The ride home to Damyang (or the Gwangju bus station) is about 70 or 80kms and starts off with a bang.  This climb through the valley is actually really enjoyable and while it’s quite long, it’s not as steep as some of the other climbs on this route (four in total).  And of course once you’re at the top, you’re met with a nice downhill to catch your breath.  The whole afternoon is filled with valleys and underused roads.  It’s gorgeous.

Selfie at the top of the mountain.
 Valley roads.
 Headed to Damyang.

Bike Trouble!
After fixing John’s bike, we turned off on road 29 which heads south through Damyang “city” and back to The Damyang House.  This road is scenic in its own right as it passes by Damyang Lake and the iconic Chuwolsan, which overlooks Damyang and can be seen from miles away.  Of course there’s another scenic valley to pass through as well.  
 Chuwolsan
Chuwolsan
Valley to Damyang.
We eventually ended up in Damyang and stumbled upon the Namdo Food Festival, which looked pretty damn fun, but was much too big of an endeavor to take on this late in the game.  We instead headed to one of Damyang’s famous Galbi restaurants which didn’t disappoint.  It’s embarrassing how much BBQ’d pork they gave us.  
 승일식당
 Always packed. 
Namdo Food Festival
At this point in the trip it sort of felt like someone hit the fast forward button.  Certainly one of the bigger down-sides to trying to accomplish so much in a two-day weekend.  I think we’d all agree that another night/day to soak it all in would have been nice.  Regardless, it was an action packed 48 hours and I look forward to doing it all again soon (Wolchulsan anyone?)!!!
*all photos by Sean Walker, Sunghoon Cho, Jay Diaz, John McDermott and Mark Gibby Johnson…thanks for sharing guys!