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The National Museum (admission is free) is another heritage must-see with exhibits including bronze Buddhas and beautiful calligraphy.

My own favourite is a delicate gold crown ornamented with droplets of jade.Perhaps South Korea’s most famous historical attraction is the Demilitarized Zone, known by the much more snappy DMZ.

This wide strip of no-man’s-land on the ‘38th parallel’ about 80 miles from Seoul has separated North and South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953.

In spite of its reassuring name, it’s actually the most heavily militarised border in the world.

I’ve heard that visitors tie prayers for unification to a barbed-wire-topped fence and that at festival time some bring meals here to feel closer to loved ones on the other side of the divide.

But in spite of the gestures of civilians, North and South Korean soldiers eyeball one another across the strip, fingers on triggers, tensions running high. I mean, this is serious stuff, right?

So it seems more than a little incongruous to find out that a visit here is not only considered a relaxing day out (tourdmz.com; from around £45), but it’s actually so touristy that you can pick up a box of DMZ souvenir chocolates and pose for photos with grinning South Korean soldiers. 

At a row of coin-operated telescopes I peep across land towards the notoriously sensitive, secretive neighbours.

The atmosphere is one of gentle curiosity, until someone steps over the clearly painted line where signs insist ‘No cameras’.

Ignoring the warnings, he prepares to take a snap of the North and, like lightning, the atmosphere changes.

A heavily armed soldier hurls a volley of furious Korean in his direction and, suddenly terrified, the tourist scuttles off, tail between his legs.

Perhaps it’s not that relaxed after all...

A highlight of the DMZ is the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of a series of channels through which North Korea is believed to have tried to breach its neighbour’s border.

I don a hard hat and head down into the dark on what feels like the world’s most sedate ghost train.

I’m glad of my helmet as I bang my head on the low roof.


Seoul at nightfall

The tunnel looks like a mine shaft and guides are quick to point out the scrape marks that indicate the direction from which it was dug (North Korea denies the handiwork).

It is now filled in after a few metres, the only breach made by water, which bubbles up from an underground spring.

It’s clean enough to drink, so I crouch and grab a cold handful, thinking that’s probably the only taste of North Korea I’ll ever get. 

Later that night I move onto something a little stronger when my city guide Young offers to take me out for a night on the lash – Seoul-style. We head to Itaewon, which is the city’s nightlife district.

The streets here are lined with a mix of bars, clubs and restaurants which get packed in the evenings with an international crowd: tourists, expats and South Koreans all come here to party.

We start off our session with a couple of glasses of Bokbunja ju, which is a raspberry wine. “It’s good for sexual stamina,” Young tells me with a wink.

Hmm. Sweet, fruity and dangerously potent, it’s actually so easy to drink, I think it’s more likely to leave your date slumped in front of their kimchi (South Korea’s food staple) than raring to go.

There are strict etiquette rules, Young says, on how to drink in South Korea: “Fill your companion’s glass for them using two hands, or one hand with the arm held at the elbow,” she tells me.

She demonstrates. I drink. She demonstrates again. I knock it back again.


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Seoul searching: From ancient spiritual ceremonies to potent cocktails, we explore South Korea's capital city
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