Discover Hahoe and Yangdong, the UNESCO-listed villages in South Korea

Perfectly located to provide both physical and spiritual nourishment from their surrounding landscapes, Hahoe and Yangdong, in Gyeongsangbuk-do, are two UNESCO-listed villages that offer a glimpse into South Korea's past.

By Gyeongsangbuk-do
Published 11 Oct 2021, 10:30 BST, Updated 1 Nov 2021, 12:30 GMT
The ensembles of buildings in Yangdong Folk Village, Gyeongju, are a reflection of the social and cultural ...

The ensembles of buildings in Yangdong Folk Village, Gyeongju, are a reflection of the social and cultural systems of the Joseon Dynasty. The tile-roofed compounds of the noble yangban occupy the high ground, while the humbler, thatched-roof abodes of the peasant class stand in clusters below.

Photograph by Gyeongsangbuk-do

South Korea may be among the most modern places on earth, but it keeps one foot firmly in the past with the preservation of its traditional villages. These centuries-old historic hamlets uphold the dynasty of the Joseon-era through their classic architecture, cornucopia of folk traditions, time-honoured rituals and works of art.

Hahoe Folk Village and Yangdong Folk Village, situated in the province of Gyeongsangbuk-do, are two of the best-preserved examples of how the locals lived long ago. Experiencing these UNESCO-recognised settlements is like stepping back in time, and well worth the visit for anyone eager to soak up the rustic rhythms of Korean country life.

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 Queen Elizabeth II stopped by for a visit in 1999. Founded by the highborn Ryu clan, this is an architecture-lover’s dream, home to both Chunghyodang and Yangjindang, two perfectly preserved noble residences that accentuate the tile-roofed style that defines Hanok houses.

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 also 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; Byeolsingut Tal Nori, meanwhile, is a ribald mask drama that’s a thrilling mixture of ritual, folk opera and pantomime.

Hahoe Folk Village is made for wandering, and you can easily spend anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days exploring it and its surrounds. On the other side of the village, take the forest trail behind the church and you’ll wind up at the impressive Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy, a leading educational institution in Andong that's home to some 3,000 books, including Ryu Seong-ryong’s literary collection. 

Photograph by Gyeongsangbuk-do

Yangdong Folk Village, Gyeongju

Like Hahoe, Yangdong Folk Village was founded during the Joseon Dynasty and has enjoyed over 500 years of relative peace and prosperity. And with over 160 homes spread out among the rises and valleys, the UNESCO-listed settlement is the largest traditional 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. 

Moreover, the village still utilises an aristocratic class system, with the tile-roofed compounds of the noble yangban occupying the high ground, while the humbler, thatched-roof abodes of the peasant class stand in clusters below. While these homes are certainly pleasing to the eye, they’re also eminently practical. Like most Korean clan villages, Yangdong was designed and built to exist in harmony with its environment, which usually 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. 

The layout of Yangdong Folk Village highlights the social stratification typical of Joseon Dynasty society. The homes of the Wolseong Son and Yeogang Yi clans are located on the high ground of the mountains and valleys, while the lower-class homes, characterised by their thatched roofs, were built on lower ground.

Photograph by Gyeongsangbuk-do

Plan your visit

British Airways offers regular nonstop flights to Seoul’s Incheon Airport. From there, transfers to the city of Daegu are easy and often, where both Hahoe and Yangdong Folk Villages are within easy driving or bus distance.

Hahoe Folk Village and Yangdong Folk Village both offer accommodations in traditional Hanok houses, which is the ideal way to experience these hamlets. Once the other tourists leave for the day, you’ll have the place practically to yourself and an early morning stroll will reveal the beauty and tranquility of these historic hamlets.

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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