Basic Survival Rules For Drinking in Korea

The basic game plan for any night out among Koreans is to last five rounds which cover five different locations and often cover multiple alcoholic beverages and food across a spectrum of delicacies.

(This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a certain percentage of a sale if you purchase after clicking. These funds go to maintain the site. Thank you for your support.)

It may sound like a basic bar hop from the college days of yore but for many, they’re no longer in college and still the need to “hop” from place to place persists. For anyone new to Korea, if you don’t know what the expectations are, you could go hard and fast and end up home in bed before the night has even gotten started by Korean standards. The rounds can be flexible in order, but do not doubt that there will be multiple rounds with lots of food and drink. Here are the basics before you head out for the first time or for the next time. Also, for anytime, make sure you know how to get over that hangover Korean style too!

Round 1 (eel cha/ 일차):

Korean Food: Grill, Pig SkinDinner and soju. Friends often gather around tables with built in grills to cook up some pork or beef while enjoying the numerous vegetable side-dishes. Taking shots of soju to get the night started is not unheard of and really should be expected. If you haven’t had soju most foreigners would describe it as similar to vodka or Japanese sake. Signs that round one is starting off with a bang include the sight of people with a soju shot glasses held upside down over their heads indicating they have taken a shot and finished it in one fell swoop. Round one may also include games to make those shots go down a bit faster.

Round 2 (ee cha/ 이차):

After dinner, many groups will head to a foodnearby hof to enjoy some brewskies. Don’t be surprised when the waiter waits around for you to order some food as well. Though you’ve just enjoyed a meat heavy meal, many hofs often require patrons to order food from large fruit platters to dishes of fried chicken. Drink up and be prepared to continue to dine. Remember, do not pour your own drink and be prepared for lots of group “cheers”, or rather “gunbae” (건배) in Korean, to keep everyone on the same drinking pace.

Round 3 (sam cha/ 삼차): 

A second hof or bar that doesn’t enforce food orders is next up where the party will likely get very merry and very raucous. During round three, groups may start playing some fun games if they haven’t already. Soju and beer (maekju 맥주) , or somaek (소맥) when enjoyed together, may be enjoyed during this round and somaek bombs may be introduced to the party to really get you lit.

Round 4 (sa cha/ 사차): 

Noraebong LoveKoreans love to sing and it doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune or not, round 4 will bring on the noraebong (karaoke bar). Private singing rooms are all the rage for everyone from the young to the old and are rented by the hour. Have some songs in mind when you walk in because you won’t be walking out without singing at least one loud anthem.

Round 5 (oh cha/ 오차): 

Gwangjang Market Food and MakkoliBy round 5 perhaps half of the merry group has left, but the go-getters are looking for one last thing to end the night. Options for those hoping to end the night intimately with friends includes tented street carts with alcohol or another hof/bar while those wishing to make the most of the night may drag you to a nearby dance club until the sun is once again shining.

If you’re hoping to last all night with a fun group of Koreans or you’re just out with your foreign friends but going Korean style, here are some basic survival rules:

Because you cannot pour your own drink in Korea, you may feel like you’re constantly being pushed to overindulge. Every time your glass is emptied someone will top it off again so, the first rule to keep in mind is to take it slow and have a glass of water nearby. Rather than refusing a drink, which is considered rude, take sips of your soju or beer and drink water. Remember, a night out in Korea will last the entire night because establishments don’t close. Also important to remember when receiving a top off from a friend, hold your glass with both hands or one hand with your other hand atop your wrist. This will indicate that you’re politely accepting the drink. You should also use these motions when you pour for your friend in response as well.

One basic mistake made by foreigners is to fill the belly at the first location not realizing that there will be food to enjoy during almost every round of the night. Unlike westerners who eat and then drink, Koreans eat and drink continuously. The second rule is not to eat too much early on. Pace yourself.

Do you want to leave early? Is your bed calling? You do not have to get overly intoxicated so that someone will put you in a taxi but, it is polite and generally easier to leave between rounds. When the group is en-route to the next location, that is the time to quickly say your goodbyes. Wave your hands to indicate you’re leaving and back away between bows. It will be much more difficult to leave mid-round while everyone is seated around a table so plan accordingly.

Forgive and forget and don’t bring it up again. Anyone from those having their first acquaintance with the Korean drinking culture to those that go out again and again can end up passed out at a table needing to be poured into a nearby taxi. Don’t hold it against them. It happens to the best of us and it happens to everyone at some point while they’re in Korea.

Koreans don’t only work hard, or at least long hours, but they play hard as well. It’s important to know the rules before you delve into the drinking culture in this country in order to keep up and play it safe. If you do join in, make sure you know how to get over that hangover awaiting you!

Basic Survival Rules For Drinking in Korea: Koreans don't only work hard, or at least long hours, but they play hard as well. It's important to know the rules before you delve into the drinking culture in Korea in order to keep up and play it safe. Here's how to survive a night out with Koreans in Seoul.

Facebook Comments

You may also like...

15 Responses

  1. annie says:

    i don’t know if i should be sad or happy i never have experienced this drinking culture of korea lol

    • Hallie says:

      It is certainly something. It took me quite a few outings to get the hang of it and figure out how to handle myself. I wouldn’t say it’s a necessary part of the culture to experience, but many people do that’s for sure.

  2. These are important haha, I can see how a round of drinking could put me on the floor! Great to know the ettiquette, I had no idea you were supposed to keep eating. I would have poured drinks for myself unthinkingly!

  3. This post really proves the rich culture of Korea, especially in their food cuisine. This is truly something I should try when I get the chance to visit Korea. I like how you describe each experiences that you have and your photos are truly stunning.

  4. This is too funny! I saw an episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown – one of Anthony Bourdain’s many amazing shows, and he did this and he seemed totally lost by the end of it. He totally could’ve used this guide! I love how exciting and packed a night out is – I would have to limit myself to no more than once a month! Haha!

    • Hallie says:

      I saw that too. It’s definitely easy to get lost, drunk, bewildered or just dang confused wondering when the night will ever end. No one tells you the goal is to last until sunrise. Newbies to Korea definitely do this probably every weekend but it’s easy to get burnt out that way. It’s better to shoot for once a month for sure. ^^

  5. That’s so different from how I do things when I go out. And I definitely always eat too much early on. Sounds like a fun night out, but quite a marathon. It might require some training and practice. I’d love to sample more korean beverages. I have had a few, but they have so many interesting options. And obviously karaoke is a MUST!

    • Hallie says:

      I still eat too much early on probably and Koreans are always quick to tell me to eat if I stop later on in the rounds. Karaoke is a total must! One of my favorite rounds and I rarely get that far these days. -_-

  6. I’m not much of a drinker and tend to get tipsy after only one (okay maybe two) drinks so I don’t see how I would survive this drinking (and food) extravaganza…lol! I guess I would have to politely opt out after the first round. 🙂

    • Hallie says:

      Yeah, I’d say you wouldn’t want to do it regularly, but it is a fun experience to have at least once. And if you do try just discreetly fill your “soju” glass with water when everyone is pouring each other soju. You’ll be able to last longer but still cheers and have fun with everyone. ^^

  7. Sarah Kim says:

    I can’t believe how much Koreans drink! I do love that there’s food involved in so many rounds of drinking. This reminds me in NYC when I went out with my japanese co-workers. We would literally eat and drink for 3 hours straight…. nuts.

    • Hallie says:

      Yeah, my first year here I gained about 10 pounds. It was freshmen fifteen all over again. I could NOT understand how Koreans were eating so much but staying thin. Figured out I was the one eating so much while everyone else was eating smaller portions because they knew they had to keep eating hahahaha

  1. September 2, 2016

    […] right outside of the convenience store itself. Oh the convenience and trouble that has caused. Not only are Koreans drinking it up outside of shops and bodegas, they’re out with their frien… I double dog dare […]

  2. December 19, 2016

    […] I can’t say if this is a universal thing, but it is pretty standard for Korea; “meetings” often happen in the evenings leading into the nights and may not end until early morning. I say “meeting” because to me, it’s not a meeting if you’re getting drunk while you may possibly talk work. Indie musicians have to hustle and if a director, producer, fellow band member wants to talk business, that means whatever they want. Whatever they want usually means lots of alcohol and a drunk husband stumbling home at odd hours. How often these meetings happen is really up to the husband and his personality though. Mine, fortunately, doesn’t really like these events and tries to opt out as much as possible. If you’re in Korea and have to attend a work meeting, be prepared! […]

  3. February 21, 2017

    […] with bosses and coworkers getting a bite to eat with the required soju shot or ten to be drunk. Do you know what it takes to go out Korean style? People are wandering the streets in search of the fun to be had. Should we find the nearest bar? […]

What do you think?