National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Korea’s historic hamlets
Shrouded in tranquillity and tradition, South Korea’s UNESCO-listed villages soak up the rustic rhythms of country life and offer a glimpse into the past
South Korea may be among the most modern places on earth, yet it keeps one foot firmly in the past with its traditional villages. Hahoe and Yangdong, situated in Gyeongsangbukdo, are two of the best-preserved historic hamlets, both granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010. Experiencing them is like stepping back in time with their cornucopia of Joseon-era folk traditions, time-honoured rituals, and works of art.
HAHOE FOLK VILLAGE, ANDONG
Bordered by hills and a great S-shaped bend in the Nakdong River, Hahoe Folk Village is arguably the country’s most famous — so much so that the Queen stopped by the UNESCO-listed settlement for a visit in 1999. The village’s most famous resident comes in the form of a 600-year-old zelkova tree called Samsindang. This great arbour towers over the village like a guardian, and — true to Hahoe’s shamanistic roots — is said to be home to the goddess Samsin.
But Hahoe is not just a museum piece. This is a place where history comes to life through local celebrations and performances. Seonyu Julbul Nori is a biannual festival where visitors can marvel at a firework display over the languid flow of the Nakdong River, while Byeolsingut Tal Nori is a ribald mask drama that’s a thrilling mixture of ritual, opera and pantomime.
YANGDONG FOLK VILLAGE, GYEONGJU
With more than 160 homes spread out among the rises and valleys, UNESCO-listed Yangdong Folk Village is the largest Joseonera village in the country. Here, visitors can experience all the components synonymous with a traditional Korean clan village including a jeongsa (study hall), a jeongja (pavilion), a seowon (Confucian academy), and a seodang (village school), as well as many spiritual heritages, including plays, artworks, and rituals.
Like most Korean villages, Yangdong was designed and built to exist in harmony with its environment, which consists of a river in front of the village and a mountain behind. Yangdong, which is nestled against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Seolchangsan and surrounded by arable fields, keeps optimally cool during Korea’s sultry summers and cosy come the harsh winters.