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For Guys

Guide to doing business in Seoul


Andy Kennard (39)
Owner of AV Intelligence Pte Ltd

1. How often do you travel to Seoul and who do you fly with?
I don’t have a fixed travel schedule but I spent at least eight weeks there last year. It helps that my better half is Korean, so I make extra trips to visit my in-laws.

2. One thing everyone ought to know about Seoul:
Seoul is split into two distinct parts by the Han River. Gangbuk is the older northern part and home to the royal palaces and government institutions. Gangnam, the southern part, is the major business district. You have to be sure which one you are heading to, as travelling between the two can take an hour or more.

3. How quickly can you get a visa?
Save for a few exceptions, most nationalities don’t require a visa and can stay for 30 to 90 days.

4. Fastest way to get into the city:
If you are staying near Seoul’s main train station in Gangbuk, take the train as it’s fast and relatively cheap. Personally, I take the airport bus because it’s very efficient. It costs only 15,000 won (S$16.50) and will get you to your destination in 40 to 80 minutes.

Taxis from Incheon Airport can cost as much as 60,000 to 100,000 won (S$66 to S$110), plus, traffic can be really slow during rush hour. Black taxis, similar to Singapore’s Chrysler taxis charge almost double. I never take those. Taxi drivers don’t speak any English and aren’t always honest with foreigners, so you need to have your wits about you. 

5. When are the good and bad times to visit Seoul?
Seoul in autumn is beautiful. Pollution is at its lowest and the temperature and humidity levels are also kind. December to February is icy cold, sometimes below minus 10 degrees celsius. However, that also means you can go skiing for the weekend! The air quality is pretty bad all year round but is at its worst from March to May. June to August is similar to Singapore in terms of heat and humidity and comes with monsoonal rain.

6. Any good hotels to recommend?
The hotels with a reputation for being the best are The Shilla Seoul (+822 2233 3131), Park Hyatt (+822 2016 1234) in Gangnam CBD and Grand Hyatt (+822 797 1234) in Gangbuk, on a hill overlooking the river. In Gangnam, a cheaper option would be Dormy Inn Serviced Residences (+822 6474 1515).

For a traditional Korean stay, try Bukchon Guest House (+8210 6711 6717). It’s a converted old Korean house located in Hanok Village so don’t expect five-star facilities. To complete the authentic Korean experience, you can also join their cooking lessons to learn to make kimchi.

7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
It depends on your industry of course, but it’s best to wear a suit and tie. Korean business is quite formal.

8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
Expect social or business evenings to involve lots of alcohol. It’s part of the Korean relationship-building process to get seriously drunk with your colleagues on beer and soju, a Korean spirit similar to vodka. It’s considered impolite to refuse a drink when offered. However, this rule really only applies to men, women may choose to go home early. It’s also a nice touch to pour drinks for your host and they should do the same for you. When you’re handed a drink or business card, take it with both hands.

Korean culture is strongly influenced by both Chinese and Japanese cultures so concepts of respect, harmony, saving face and a strong hierarchy are very important. It is good to greet your counterparts with “an-nyung-ha-se-yo” (meaning hello) and a slight bow, followed by a Western-style handshake.

In my experience, Koreans are very tolerant of foreigners so although they will appreciate if you try to adapt, they won’t hold it against you if you get it wrong.

9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
Koreans find Western food quite bland so it is better to stick to Korean food. But be warned, Korean food is among the spiciest in the world! Koreans are proud of their cuisine so asking your client to recommend a good local restaurant because you are “really keen to eat delicious Korean food” will go down very well. However, informing your client that the kimchi (Korea’s famous fermented vegetables with chilli) tastes horrible may cause genuine offence. If you can’t stomach spicy food, the safest dishes to order are galbi (Korean barbecue) and bulgogi (beef marinated with sweet soy sauce). Don’t be surprised when ten or more side dishes are served – it’s a standard part of Korean meals. You’re not expected to finish everything.

If you’ve got money to spend, try upmarket Korea House restaurant (+822 2266 9101). It’s a converted nobleman’s house and they offer dishes that have been served to the royal family for centuries. 

10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
The Hongdae area in Gangbuk is well known for its bars. Both Hyatts have trendy upmarket bars too. Korean businessmen tend to drink while having dinner though, rather than heading to a bar after dinner solely for drinks.

Like any city, Seoul has places where you will get hassled; mostly KTV or escort bars where paid-for female attention is the whole point of going.

11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
Seoul is completely safe as long as you employ the same common sense as you would in any big city. You don’t need to worry too much about being scammed. That said, drunken brawling is common so steer clear if you see two inebriated people arguing loudly outside a bar.

12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
Seoul was heavily rebuilt after the Korean War, understandably without much regard for aesthetics, so it’s not like Paris or London.

Because of the ever-present pollution, don’t go up Seoul Tower, the city’s most well known landmark, unless the skies are clear. My favourite place to visit is the Changduk Palace where you will get a sense of Korea’s rich heritage. Seoul is surrounded by mountains, so you can go for a nice long walk if you’re up for it; Namsan is the most tourist-friendly, with cable cars and restaurants, while Bukhansan is the highest and offers more nature.

13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
Usually, I get requests from friends to bring back bottles of soju, jars of kimchi and Korean-style metal chopsticks. There are plenty of places to buy gifts. In Gangnam, there are two upmarket shopping areas – Cheongdam-dong and Apgujeong-dong. Near Apgujeong, there is a cute street called Garosu-gil, popular for its women’s fashion and cafés. In Gangbuk, go to Myeongdong shopping area or the Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets. You can also get souvenirs from department stores such as Lotte, Hyundai or Shinsegae that are located all across Seoul.

14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at Incheon International Airport?
It is a well-run airport so one hour is enough but allow 90 minutes just in case.