· ·

I was robbed in Vietnam. Thoughts on secure backpack design, what we can and can't do

· ·

I'm #livingoutofariutbag for 30 days (actually, a few extra days now) in Vietnam. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram

The list of things going outrageously wrong when I travel is actually quite long. I’ll have to tell you another time about driving to the airport and, on the way, actually getting trapped in someone’s house/land and having to escape over a 6 foot fence whilst my phone ran out of battery and I had no idea where I was. Or the time I travelled to Germany with my brother’s passport, had no other ID and spent 10 hours in the transport police’s cell as an unidentifiable alien of some sort.

This story is probably a little less entertaining, or it is right now. 

Guy on a motorbike

I was robbed by a guy on a motorbike at the weekend. Like nearly everyone in Vietnam, he was on a motorbike driving down the wrong side of the street towards me. This is not unusual - there are bikes everywhere, driving as close as schools of fish swim, next to cars and pedestrians in every city in Vietnam. But this was different: he was aiming purposefully for me and my RiutBag Crush. He snatched it out of my hand and sped off into the city.

What was stolen?

I am currently stuck in Vietnam without a passport, visa for Vietnam, without my visa to China where I’m due next, without cards and money and phone. He definitely stole the right daypack. Daypacks generally have good stuff - some cash, phone, identification, maybe a camera and a few bonus objects. So the chances are it’s worth stealing them. 

How to stop this happening to you: coming soon

Safe travel is about well designed products, good travel behaviours and luck. Here's my post about why I was robbed, the things I did which led to the theft and a few things I should have done differently. I hope it will help you in your coming travels.

More secure backpack design?

How do I, the designer of secure backpacks, live with myself knowing that the design I created cannot deal with this situation? 

Well, I’m finding it really hard right now. In between working out the Vietnamese legal system, police reports, realising that my travel insurance isn’t valid because my trip is a few days too long, visiting the Vietnamese border immigration authorities, my consulate and the Chinese consulate, all I think is: how can I prevent this for other backpack users? What can I do to the RiutBag to stop this happening?

Anti theft backpack

Other companies that have copied the RiutBag design call their backpacks “anti-theft”. I have always veered away from this phrase because I think it’s false advertising. It implies that all theft is prevented by this design. But that’s not true. My goals when designing the RiutBag were these: 

  1. To design the backpack so that when you wear it, you don’t have to worry that things can be stolen from the backpack
  2. To make sure you can’t leave your zips open or important things in the outer pockets that could be stolen
  3. To give you peace of mind that no one near you can take anything. Therefore, making you feel more comfortable with others as you commute and travel on close terms with millions of other people in the world’s greatest cities.

From is the important word. I’ve always focused on making sure nothing could be stolen from your backpack. This kind of theft occurs on foot, close up: pickpocketing - either planned, strategic pickpocketing in tourist landmarks or through opportunism anywhere. But this was something else. 

Stealing the whole backpack

This was planning from afar - eagle like - looking for a weakness and then coming in for the kill. It was masterful. The guy didn’t have a sense of me or who I was - he didn’t care. I was just another tourist with a backpack in my hand (NB your RiutBag should not be in your hand. It’s always safest on your back). If he’d been watching longer as I walked over this busy bridge with 6 lanes of traffic, he will have noted that I had just replaced a camera into the bag.  I’ve seen the same videos of motorbikes on pavements grabbing phones, but the videos didn’t make me react or feel like I would impacted for some reason. 

What is the solution?

I started thinking: right, just add a strong cable from the RiutBag Crush to your wrist, or to your main luggage. That will ensure that someone can’t steal your entire daypack - because all I want right now is for that RiutBag Crush not to have been stolen. I could have finished the design and gone straight into production if I wanted. But I have to - have to - think about what the unintended consequences will be of any of my designs.

Cable solution 1: attach cable to your wrist

This follows the design that security people use when they are carrying cash in briefcases from secure trucks to/from a bank or a business. They have a chain and a secure wrist strap between the handle and them. 

Whilst these people are trained, have a certain strength level and are paid to handle the following, it’s not something that I want to happen to you.

If a motorbike rider were to try and steal your backpack from your hand and it was attached to a strap on your wrist, the rider could you pull you over and harm your wrist, shoulder or arm in the process. I think this is a foreseeable consequence of this design working the way it should. I would have to create a solution to prevent this mechanism breaking your arm in some way, which it easily could.

Cable solution 2: attach cable between main backpack and smaller daypack

It’s the same. If you put cables between your main backpack and your daypack, someone viewing you from afar may not see it, may only see the backpack in your hand, grab it and speed off. This could pull you over backwards. Your main large backpack could take the brunt of your fall but it’s not easily foreseeable that you will land safely. If a motorbike driver is in the road, you may be pulled into the road. The rider may be pulled off their bike and suddenly you’re face to face with the person who is trying to steal from you. It could end well. But I’m not too sure.

It’s my job as a product designer to make sure that I don’t make products that, in using them as intended, they foreseeably harm you. These physical approaches to stopping the bag leaving you makes your entire body physically vulnerable. That’s not a solution I’m interested in.  

It's also easy simply not to use the cable in each of these examples. If I was so complacent to put all these belongings in my Crush and, at times, have it in my hand rather than close to my body, I can easily see me not using the feature sometimes.

In terms of the original RiutBag design, its simplicity is crucial. You have no choice but to put your zips against your back. There's not a choice. You can't put your mobile phone in some outer pocket. There aren't any that you would be willing to use. It's moulding travel behaviours by force of simplicity that enables the core RiutBag function - worn on your back - to work. 

GPRS tracker

Yes, I too had a Tile a few years ago. Like many people, I didn’t get a new battery for it when my year was up. I attached it to my passport at first. When I reached passport security in China they held me in a special cubicle to inspect it and acted as though it was a bomb. They really didn’t like it. After that, I just attached it to my keys and after the battery stopped it turned into a key ring.

Putting a tracker on the bag only tells you where the bag is. Like anyone knows, who has ever watched a film that had a car chase looking for tracker, the tracker gets thrown away. And what’s left, is a lost trail to the things you really want. In the films, it’s a bag full of money with a tracker on it. This week in my life, it’s my passport with all my visas.

I’m all for the GPRS sticker that has an everlasting battery. But it sounds like an impossibility. I know there was one on Kickstarter. But it didn’t materialise.

Find your iPhone

I go through phases of not wanting to be tracked wherever I go. Find your iPhone is super in the moment your phone is lost and stolen. I’m not a fan of it following my every step for the 99% of the time that my most useful possessions aren’t being stolen. I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that this event has beaten me into submission. The trackers are on. For now.

Conclusions for now 

So, what is the solution? It’s not what anyone wants to hear. It’s not what I want to think, right now. But, currently, looking at the options, on balance it’s better that I lose some important things via theft, that I have a week of impossible consular bureaucracy and I'm grateful I'm not in hospital. The guy on the motorbike won. I was complacent. And it’ll be a long time again, before I forget this.

I'm currently stuck in Vietnam. With my visa gone, I can't leave the country. My flight to leave goes today and I don't have clearance to go. More blogs to explain the insanity of what to do when your visa-filled passport is stolen soon.

Wish me luck.