Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, entrepreneur, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → Trip diary from Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong

Saturday, May 24 : San Francisco

After only a few hours' sleep, I get up natually at 6am to tie up loose ends online, and pack.

Vietnam airlines required those old-fashioned paper tickets, so they're sitting uncomfortably in my pocket.

Kaitlin drives me to the airport, and as we're almost there I realize my passport and tickets are not there. She calls her apartment front desk and they say they've found my passport, but not my ticket. We drive back, and I retrace my steps to find my ticket on the ground in the parking lot. Phew!

At the airport, even after all that, I'm still a good hour early. That “get there 2-3 hours early for international flights” stuff is bullshit. My theory is that the airport shops of the world are the ones that lobbied for that rule.

I've got a good aisle seat in the very last row of the plane. I read Richard Branson's autobiography for the entire flight, and spend the last couple hours writing about lessons learned from it.

Sunday, May 25 : Tokyo and Fukuoka

9-hour flight lands at 2pm Tokyo time.

There's always that great moment when you're first let out of the airport and you think, “Wow! I'm in __(foreign country)__!” Just out in the open and able to do anything you want.

I barely get feeling that while transferring to the domestic terminal, and there's not much time before my connection to Fukuoka.

The flight was a little late, and my connection (through Nagoya) was so tight that there's an employee waiting for me in Nagoya to run me to the gate as fast as possible.

While running, my backpack strap snaps off, and it crashes to the ground. I find out later this permanently bent my laptop.

Land in Fukuoka at 6pm, use an ATM at the airport (it works!) and take a subway into city-center.

Walking out of the train station downtown, now I'm finally hit with, “Wow! I'm in Japan again!”

Walk a few blocks to my hotel, stop at a 7-11 first to buy a couple sushi triangles and Pocky, then check into my room, sweaty and beat, awake 22 hours, eat my food, take a quick shower, and collapse.

Monday, May 26 : Kurokawa Onsen

Wide awake at 4am, I write for a while, then at 6am decide I'm ready to go.

No specific plans yet, but a few options from my guide book, so I go to the train station and buy a rail pass, good for the whole island for 5 days.

There's a town called Kurokawa Onsen in the middle of the island that is up in the mountains and is an entire village of onsen (“onsen” means “hot springs bath”).

The guide book says there are a few busses a day that leave from the mountain town of Aso.

I take the next train to Kumamoto, then the next train to Aso, both no more than 20 minutes' wait, but when I get to Aso at 11:20am, I find out the next bus to Kurokawa isn't until 2:20pm.

That means 3 hours at a little train station in the middle of nowhere like one of those 1800's American southwest train stations. Hmm....

In the long wait, I start listening to “Eat Pray Love” on the iPod. The author is reading it wonderfully.

Since it's a 3 hour wait, I kill some time by taking a tourist bus to the top of the volcanic Aso crater and back, 40 minutes each way with a 20 minute wait a the top.

Most people stay up there for a few hours, and it's a gorgeous hiking place up there, with helicopters that take you into the steaming crater cone and such, but I catch the same bus back, then get my bus to Kurokawa Onsen.

It's now 3pm and I have no reservation, so I'm hoping there will be availability at one of the ryokan (“ryokan” is an old-fashioned inn).

The bus drops off by the side of the road, but before it does I see a sign I recognize as one of the recommended ryokan from the guide book. I walk 15 minutes alongside the highway back to it, and walk in to see if they've got a room. They do, and show me around, then I check in.

It's amazing. Looks like Spirited Away. Bridge over a big river connects the lobby building with the real ryokan building.

My room is a wonderful very traditional Japanese ryokan room. 12 tatami. (the straw mats on the floor, also used to measure the size of rooms instead of counting square-feet).

No bed, someone comes into your room while you're at dinner to take the futon out of the closet and lay it in the middle of the floor.

They've got 8 private hot-spring baths downstairs, where you can go in to any open one, lock the door, and be alone in a natural rock hot springs alongside the rushing river. They've got a big outdoor one the size of a swimming pool, so after checking in I go into that one, and I'm the only one there.

It's amazing, hot, and the water smells too-sweet, like sugar water. That's its natural smell, apparently. Weird. Since I've been in the hot sun for a few hours, and still sweaty, it's too hot for me after a while, and not as relaxing as I thought since my heart beats so fast when I'm in it. But I cool off a few times with a cold-water hose next to it, then get back in a few times.

Back in my room, I collapse on the floor to de-sweat. (Remember: no bed yet.) 2 hours to chill while listening to the audiobook.

Dinner is in a special private room (one per guest-room) downstairs and they've got a huge elaborate traditional Japanese meal for me, in 10 small courses. The first few are already laid-out and for the next hour or so, a woman comes by every 10 minutes with the remaining parts. Since I've had nothing but 7-11 rice triangles for the last 24 hours, it's amazing.

It's only 7pm but that's 3am California time. Dead tired, I head back to my room after dinner, bed is all made on the floor, and fall asleep immediately to a massive rolling army of frogs croaking. (I say “rolling” because they seem to sync up their croaks so it's like dozens of them pulsing all at once, about at the tempo of someone raking leaves.) The sound of the river is always in the background.

Tuesday, May 27 : Kurokawa to Sakurajima

A few times in the night I wake to odd sounds, thin walls, cats fighting outside, but all in all it's wonderfully refreshing.

At 6am I take a walk through this little town dedicated to hot springs. It's adorable and I should have brought my camera.

I go to a private bath which is way better than the big open sweet-smelling shared bath from the day before. A little door you walk in then lock, and you're in a private 30-square-foot area right by the river, with your own private hot tub, about the size of a health club jacuzzi. Either it's a better tempurature, or I am, but I stay in for a long time.

Afterwards, I realize I haven't even been in Japan for 36 hours yet, and there has been no sitting still.

I decide I'd like to stay in this little town for at least another day, maybe three.

Passing the front desk on the way to breakfast, I say I'd like to stay another night, but they tell me it's full! Damn. Oh well.

I check the bus schedule and decide to catch an 11am bus, take another private hot tub after breakfast, pack, and go.

No long waits today. Everything is an immediate connection. Bus to train to train to train, I've decided to head as far south as I can go, to Kagoshima, which seems like a good-sized city, and is right next to a recently-active volcano island called Sakurajima.

At the Kagoshima train station is an English-speaking tourist center, so I ask if they can call the beautiful onsen hotel that the book recommends on the south of that volcano island. She does, and it's available for tonight, so she books it, and guides me to the train to the ferry to the island, where a shuttle bus takes me to the hotel.

This island is like an itty bitty Hawaiian island, palm trees and all, but it's really just one huge volcano in the middle with a single road around the outside.

At the hotel, I see a photo of their hot tub, and it's the amazing one I saw on Flickr online last week before coming here, thinking, “I wonder if I'll find that place!” Found it!

“Eat Pray Love” finishes in the iPod just as the shuttle bus is arriving at the hotel. Wow. I get that slightly-empty “now what?” feeling you get right after finishing a great book.

Check into a normal room with an amazing right-on-the-ocean view. Another 10-course traditional Japanese dinner.

7pm. I've now been in Japan for only 48 hours. Phew.

I go to that outdoor hot springs at sundown and it's even more amazing than I expected. Right next to the ocean, little buddhist/shinto idols under the tree, and I'm the only one there.

This is officially one of the most amazing places I've ever been in my life.

This is a moment where I really would have loved to had my video camera. It was up in the room but I was all wet. Oh well.

Wednesday, May 28 : back to Fukuoka, back to work

Up at 3am, writing, getting restless. After breakfast I decide I'm going to go back to Fukuoka, to Dukes Hotel, where they had internet access and no traditional food, no fussing over me. Spent 2 days in my room just reading, writing, working. Booked some CD Baby meet-ups for the next three cities.

Friday, May 30 : Tokyo

Effortless flight into Tokyo. Easy train to downtown. Nice how comfortable this country feels to me now after 4 visits.

Staying at a tiny traditional inn near Tokyo station, I've barely arrived when Keiji (who I know from a previous visit, and who has been working with CD Baby) meets me here, and we go out for a walk and talk.

Amazing to note that in Tokyo you are not allowed to smoke even outside on the street! Only in very designated smoking areas. $500 fine if caught. Amazing for what struck me as such a chain-smoking city on my first two visits.

We have a CD Baby meet-up, about 15 people come, half from outside Japan. Nice conversation. One couple was an English man and Japanese woman who brought their teenage daughter who looked completely western/American/Brit, just slightly Asian, so of course I spoke comfortable English to her, and was surprised that she was a total giggling Japanese schoolgirl that barely spoke English! It was so weird to see those stereotypical personality traits on a white/Western girl. Maybe it's just as weird for them to see someone with Japanese parents who grew up in America acting completely American.

Saturday, May 31 : Vietnam

Flew into Saigon, has been called Ho Chi Minh City since 1975 when the communist government took over, but everyone there still calls it Saigon.

First impression, it reminds me of India! Very rickety and scrappy, everyone on little scooters, dirt and rubble everywhere. People crouched on sidewalks selling things.

Overwhelmingly humid and hot, I can't walk a block without sweating buckets.

I go to the Park Hyatt to see my friend Kat Parsons play and meet with Tuan the jazz saxophonist who brings me to his jazz club afterwards.

Sunday, June 1 : Saigon

Since all of my clothes are now nasty, I go into a crowded market to find laundry detergent and buy a nice new white shirt for $5. Wash my clothes in the sink, though they take two days to dry in the humidity.

Rest of the 30-piece band arrives from Chicago late at night.

Monday, June 2 : Saigon

Mostly empty day with band rehearsal during the day and concert performance at night. Hung out with Kat Parsons a bit, who's in Saigon for 3 months, but doesn't simplify her English for people who don't speak English. She very cheerily but earnestly said to the woman at the cellphone store, (who already made it clear she doesn't speak English), “I just need to get another cellphone, y'know like a Nokia or something, but maybe one that's like white or cream colored so my road manager doesn't notice I lost my last one! Do you have something kinda light colored? You know... white?”

Tuesday, June 3 : fly to Hue (pronounced “Hway”), central Vietnam

Flying into Hue, it's already amazing before we land. Out the window we see real countryside, little traditional huts and cemetaries buried in the woods, everything looks so exotic and authentic. Even on the drive from the airport, we pass amazing crumbling shops, brightly painted decades ago, now gorgeously decayed.

It's a small city, barely a city, maybe only 2-3 tall buildings. The Park View Hotel is amazing. (Highly recommended.)

Because of this, it's so inviting to walk around. I immediately take the video camera on a 3-hour walk all around town, so ecstatically happy, capturing amazing moments on film.

That night, we go to a massive opening ceremony with thousands of people outside the grand palace.

Walking back, the only way to cross the street on foot across hundreds of scooters is to just go for it - just start walking and trust that they'll stop. I raised the video camera in the air, pointed towards traffic, hit record, and went for it, walking into a moving sea of scooters and making it to the other side just fine. Classic moment. Unfortunately found out later I didn't hit record fast enough, so there's no video of it.

Wednesday, June 4 : Hue

I was planning to sit in the room and work all day, but while passing through the lobby, a dozen people from the band were all going to rent scooters for only $5 on a guided tour out to some tombs. I said OK.

What you're about to read next is one of the most amazing times in my life.

As soon as we were on the scooters, driving through the streets, it made all the difference in the world. Instead of just observing, we were participating in a way that walking doesn't satisfy. Maybe the rush of driving the moped just increases the endorphins, but it was so much fun we couldn't stop smiling, waving to amused onlookers. Heading out through the burbs then countryside, the scenery was so amazing, going over little wooden bridges, really felt, “Wow - now I'm in Vietnam!” I didn't want it to end, but black clouds loomed and our hour rental was up.

Kimo's big concert was that night, outdoors.

After the show, we met at the river and took two guided boats for 45 minutes or so, with musicians performing traditional Vietnamese music in traditional dress.

But coming back to the hotel, it's 1am, and enough of us are wide awake that I ask some guys if they want to rent scooters again. 5 said “hell yeah!” and we got 6 scooters for $5 each, at 1am on a Wednesday night in the town of Hue.

First we had to find gas, since all the employees seem to leave their bikes on empty. We're driving the dark empty streets, looking for a gas station, and find 6 20-something guys and girls sitting at some tables on a lighted part of the sidewalk by a cart, having some drinks. We tried to ask them where to get gas, but they spoke no English at all. We tried for a few minutes through lots of misunderstanding. Finally the (best looking) girl comes over to my bike as I point to the gas guage and show her it's empty. She thinks this is hilarious and calls to the old woman by the cart, who pulls out a 1-liter bottle of gas and a funnel. We point to all 6 bikes and they fill us all up, one by one, laughing the whole time. As we're leaving, one of the drinking guys tries to push the (best-looking) girl on me, as if for money. They're all laughing, as we ride off into the night.

Now the 6 of us are laughing and whooping at how fun this is, riding our motorcycles through the empty dark streets. We go through the palace grounds, then I lead us back to the busier streets where we pass a gathering place, about 50 people eating and drinking at small plastic tables by the side of the road, served by an old man in a cart. First we pass it, then I call to the guys, “You hungry?” Enough say yes that we turn around and park our bikes by this place, and become such a local spectacle that little kids are coming over to gawk at us. (Yes, little kids at 2am on a Wednesday.) We sit in baby plastic chairs at a baby plastic table on a gravelly sidewalk and order 6 beers and 6 pho beef soups. We're all just laughing at how amazing this is and how great it feels. We stay about an hour, cracking eachother up, having another round of beer, talking with the kids, and giving them our beer caps since I guess there is an occasional prize inside.

Once we leave, Scott who had been there before took us through some cool deserted backstreets, with countless closed decaying shops. Dreamlike in the dim light, occasionally passing an old woman in a straw hat carrying bushels of something.

Then we get to a railroad bridge that has an extremely narrow 2-foot-wide bike path on each side. Since I'm last in line at this point, all 5 guys are stopped at it, having come to the conclusion that “no way we're crossing that - too dangerous - this is where we turn back”, but I didn't even slow down, gave a “hell yeah! come on!” and rode across the bridge. Exhilarating and actually quite safe. We gather on the other side for a group pee, as a couple locals join us for the same, laughing, and we ride off into the night again. Jim, the road manager says “I could do this all night!” I think we all felt the same. After another 30 minutes of riding around, including the main central roundabout of the whole city where we went around it 3 times in circles, laughing, we headed back to the hotel, thrilled. 4am.

Thursday, June 5 : Hue and Saigon

Rented a motorbike by myself, this time with the video camera and a blank tape. Went off into the countryside the same way we had gone to the tombs, and started recording the whole thing. Took sidestreets and forks, and kept heading one direction so as to get further out from the city, knowing someone would point me the way back. Amazing trip and glad I caught it all on tape. Right near the end, heading back into the city, I realized I had 5 minutes left on the tape, but hadn't gone through the busiest parts yet (the “sea of hundreds of motorcycles” described earlier). I headed right into the middle of it, tape running the whole time. Awesome.

When I got back, Jim was in the lobby and wanted to go out again. So did Jason the trombonist, so we rented 2 more bikes, and I took them off into the countryside again. This time we went further, into woods, right next to cows, through dirt roads, stopped at an old decayed house to take pictures with the permission of a smiling grunting woman with cows who then asked for money afterwards. We each gave 10,000 dong, which is about 60 cents. She was thrilled.

We stopped at a little restaurant made of bamboo huts over a pond and had 3 beers that were warm but they put them on ice for us for a minute.

This is where I think I accidently drank the tiniest sip of that icewater that destroyed me the next day.

We flew back to Saigon, checked in at 9pm, had some spring rolls (other possible culprit) and I went straight to bed.

Friday, June 6 : Saigon to Hong Kong

Woke feeling fine, drank a whole 2-liter bottle of water (some before bed, some after waking). Had a chicken sandwich at the airport (other possible culprit) and got on the plane.

Once on the plane, my stomach really started hurting. I hit the tiny airplane bathroom and let's just say it started shooting out both ends at once. I filled(!) an entire barf bag, and half of the next. I did this again 5 more times on that 2-hour flight, including another barf bag while in my seat as we were landing.

In Hong Kong, the immigration line took 40 minutes. Imagine standing in line for 40 minutes while needing to explode from both ends, but knowing I'd be better off just getting through the line so I could get to my hotel instead of staying in the airport. I got fevery sweats. I couldn't stand and had to crouch. I really thought I might faint. I finally made it through and ran for the bathroom. Found my way to the express train to downtown and puked into a paper bag fished from the garbage as soon as I arrived.

Caught a taxi to my hotel (everything seemed to take forever) and made it up to my room, and collapsed in pain in what felt like an artic cold bed, teeth chattering, moaning and writhing.

A few hours later I woke feeling a little better, but still my skin hurt. A few hours later woke again soaked in sweat, with no more flu feeling, but a terrible pain in my gut.

I was supposed to have two meetings today that had been scheduled weeks in advance with the bank and incorporation company - that's the whole reason I came to Hong Kong, but because Friday was now gone I missed my chance.

Watched some Family Guy on the iPod and fell back asleep.

Saturday, June 6 : Hong Kong

Woke to smashing lightning storm at 6am, rain so hard I couldn't see the ground from my hotel window. I was told later this is called “black rain” in Chinese and it's so strong the news warns everyone not to go outside at all, not even walking. All flights grounded at the airport. I stayed in and watched movies in bed all day, gut still killing me.

Changed my flight to leave tomorrow morning instead of Monday night as planned.

Ventured out at 8pm for a CD Baby meetup at a club in the party part of town. Cool group of people - about 20 showed up. Hong Kong is one of those cities like New York where almost everyone is from somewhere else and has great stories to tell.

Sunday, June 7 : Fly home

United told me it wouldn't cost anything to change my flight, since I had already paid a $350 change fee the first time (to go to Japan early) but after 45(!) minutes of the very nice customer service woman at the airport typing into her computer, quite confused, and checking with various managers, she came back and said, “I'm sorry but it will cost an extra $750 to fly on the next plane. If you wait until tonight (8 hours from now) there will be no change fee.” She clearly saw the pained look on my face as I said, “No no no... PLEASE no. I CAN'T sit here for 8 hours. United already said it was confirmed to fly this morning. They said no fee. I already checked out of my hotel. PLEASE let me get on the plane!” Just 1 minute later she came back and handed me the boarding pass and said, “Run! It leaves soon!”

Definitely ready to go home.