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Why I was robbed and how to avoid it happening to you

I'm still in Vietnam #livingoutofariutbag follow on Twitter and Instagram

It’s not the first time I’ve been in tricky situation on my travels. But being stranded in Vietnam without a passport, visa, phone or cash because a guy on a motorbike whisked my bag out of my hands and rode off with it into Saigon is a new one to me. 

What was stolen? 

Passport containing visa for Vietnam and 1 year multiple entry commercial visa for China (where I was due to fly in 2 days), my phone, cards, camera and SD cards and, weirdly, a whole load of chargers and cables I hadn’t bothered to pack into my main luggage. And about £150 worth of Vietnamese Dong. 

What was the scenario?

I was walking from one Airbnb to the next with all my belongings. The route took me along the right hand pavement of a bridge, busy with traffic, in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon, Vietnam. There was no one else walking along on the bridge - just loads of traffic going by. I had 95% of my belongings in my expanded RiutBag X25 safely on my back with a waist strap. The rest - which happened to have disproportionate importance and value - was in my RiutBag Crush. The daypack was either draped over my shoulder or - and herein lies the problem - in my hand. To be clear, I couldn’t put it on my back, where it’s safest, because I had my X25 - my main large rucksack - there.

It was hot (30 C/86 F), just after 13:30, I was walking through a new bit of the city gawping at the buildings. I stopped every so often to take my camera out of my daypack, take photos, replace my camera and walk on.

What happened?

As I was walking down the other side of the bridge and my daypack was momentarily in my left hand. The traffic in Vietnam drives on the right side of the road. The main flow of traffic was with me.

I looked away from the road, towards a shop on my right. At that moment, a guy on a motorbike driving the wrong way down the road, next to pavement, picked up my Crush out of my left hand, with his right hand, and sped off behind me down the side of the bridge on to a large highway by the river. I think most of us would fail performing this the first 10 ten times. He was a total pro.

How did you react?

I don’t know how other people deal with situations like this, but my response was initially to (loudly) will all of Vietnam to go after him on their bikes - which they didn’t - and then to completely lose it. My travel partner packed me into a taxi and some helpful people sent our taxi driver erroneously to the US embassy. (Next blog will be exactly what you do to get your passport back when it’s stolen in Vietnam.)

The bit before I tell you why I was robbed

I truly hate this situation. I can’t believe I let this happen. But, I did. I have to be harsh on my actions in the next section, but it’s also important to remember that safe travel comes down to a combination things: 1) Well designed luggage/clothing/travel products 2) our behaviours when travelling 3) plain, simple luck. My focus will be on my poor travel behaviours from which others can learn.

Why I was robbed: part 1 (Why he robbed me)

  1. I was walking along with a reasonably small bag containing valuables held in my left hand. A bag at the end of hand is a super grabbable thing. It seemed more like I'd passed him a baton, than him taking my backpack, as I saw it fly off into the city without me 
  2. I was walking with a bag that could be grabbed - by it’s top loop, on to which I was holding - by the road
  3. I had been using a camera and taking it in and out of the backpack making it clear there was something of value in there
  4. I was focussing on the person/stuff next to me on the pavement and not on the 180 degrees in my view
  5. I’m another white, female backpacker tourist* walking through Ho Chi Minh City. You can guess what they have in their daypack. I drew attention for clearly not being from Vietnam, for being a tourist and - possibly - for seeming like a stupid, weak one. Easy target. And, on this occasion, he was right
Why I was robbed: part 2 (What was it about me in that moment that made me more likely to be robbed)
  1. I was complacent and feeling a little too comfortable in Vietnam having been here for 30 days - I had lowered my guard
  2. In Vietnam there are so many motorbikes flying at you from every angle that after a while, I'd become completely accustomed to it. A month ago, a motorbike driving the wrong way down a busy road would have caught my eye. After a month of literally walking into a road of streaming traffic every day, I’d become numb to it
  3. I was walking in hot weather at 13:00 just after the midday sun. I was hot and weary - not alert. I hadn’t had lunch. I was being sloppy with security and being pretty childish about it
  4. I’d actually forgotten the fact that someone might steal my entire backpack from hands
  5. I had a moment on the bridge when I’d thought “it’s not a good idea to be holding the Crush like this” and did nothing about it because I was hot and tired and couldn’t be bothered to pack it away
  6. I wasn’t focussing on where my passport was
  7. I hadn’t bothered to pack my main backpack properly before I left and just stuck the rest in my Crush
What was particularly stupid about this incident
  1. I had all that good stuff - passport, phone, cards, cash, camera - in one place. They are the things that I wanted to access most often. So that’s why. But still, they were all in one place. Bad move
  2. Actually, I didn’t need access to my passport until I reached the airport next. I definitely should have had my passport in my X25 D-pocket safely against my back
  3. I not only had my passport and visa for Vietnam in there, I had other visas in there. It has made all my further travel impossible
  4. My travel insurance will not be valid because I didn't notice my trip is a few days too long for the policy I chose
  5. I was in one of those phases where I thought it was cool not be tracked all the time on Apple’s “Find my phone” service
  6. I deleted by phone’s most recent backup to free up space on the laptop
  7. I didn’t leave any room in my travel plans for error 
What made this incident less awful 
  1. I had emailed myself copies of all my most important documents before I left: passport and Vietnam visa
  2. My Airbnb host was unbelievably kind and helped me by printing out everything I needed
  3. I have dual nationality. Whilst my German passport was stolen I had my British passport in my main luggage. For a moment I thought this would be my quickest way out of Vietnam. But it turns out my ingenious plan was illegal under Vietnamese law. But still, good to have another form of ID to help in a crisis
  4. I still had everything else in my main luggage. Most importantly, my laptop and external hard drives so I can still work and communicate with the world
  5. I’m lucky enough to be travelling with my partner who has helped me - now a total wreck - through the jungle of police, embassies and immigration authorities here. I’m not through yet, and it’s doable alone but, on this occasion, I didn’t have to do it all alone 
  6. After years of getting into trouble, at age 33, it's still my mum who has tried every method of getting money to me to save me - all the way from England. It's not an option for everyone, but in my case it was a life saver
  7. My bank, HSBC, let me take out money without my card but just using my British passport. It look about 4 hours, and there’a limit of $500, but I could finally access cash
  8. It happened in Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the cheapest places to get a taxi. After travelling for 30 days on a budget of £13 per day (that includes hotel, food, travel inside Vietnam and all tourist stuff) I suddenly went into higher-cost emergency mode. No more walking 10km across a city. I have taken more taxis in the last 5 days than I think I have in my entire life before. Each taxi, taking about 20 minutes, costs between £1.50 and £2.50. Imagine trying to do this in a city as expensive as London. (I once took a taxi from Brixton to the passport office at Victoria and it cost £35.)
  9. Vietnam is a place where lots of backpackers go and get mugged! So plenty of people have discussed on TripAdvisor what to do and where to go. In my next blog, I’m going to bring it all together and up to date
How not to get mugged by a guy on a bike when you’re travelling abroad
  1. Acting like you haven’t got your act together - security wise -makes you a sitting duck (like me above). Other examples include: waving cash around, putting a nice looking camera away without keeping the bag close, leaving phone on table, showing others how much cash is in your wallet. If someone who’s up for it happens to be watching, why wouldn’t they go for it?
  2. Keep your most important valuables - e.g. passport - close to your body and spread the rest out. All of your valuables in a small, handy bag that isn’t on your back isn’t the way to go. Something valuable dangling at the end of your arm is too easy to take
  3. Even after 30 days of travel - no, especially after 30 days of travel - have a reasonable amount of awareness for the security of your belongings. At the 30 day mark, give yourself a calendar reminder to remember that your belongings are important and they could go :) Because I started to forget
  4. If you’re walking along with valuables in one hand, get used to putting it in your inside hand, not the one to the road. Why? If someone on a bike takes your bag, they can shoot off at 20km or 30km/hr without risk of being chased by a pedestrian. Someone on foot who tries to steal from you is only using the same get away method that's available to you: feet
  5. Don’t walk close to the edge of a road if you’re carrying valuables in your hands
  6. If you’re carrying everything you own on you, take 10 minutes more and just pack it on your main backpack! Don’t be lazy, like me, and stick all your favourite stuff in a daypack because you can’t be bothered to pack it all in the main one

I design RiutBags to stop people stealing stuff from your backpack.  I have had plenty of time to think about how I could make the RiutBag safer to try and stop this kind of theft too. The only thing I can currently do, to help you not have an entire backpack stolen, is to share the poor travel behaviours I was exhibiting. I’ll consolidate this soon and try to do a video. But, I thought I’d get it out whilst it’s still fresh in my mind.

I’m nearing the end of day five since it happened. Weekends and public holidays are getting in the way of completion. Weeks seem so short right now. My main goal is to get a temporary passport so that I can get a new Vietnamese visa and leave the country. I've missed my flights to leave and don't know when I can leave, just yet. I also don’t know where I’m going to get a Chinese visa between now and China. Hmmm. We’ll see.

* I am reminded, as I walk around Vietnam, that this country has been invaded by - and fought out - countries around the world. The French, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Americans and their allies. A stupid white tourist embodies a lot to someone who is down on their luck - or a professional thief - who knows their history; and Vietnam's history is everywhere to be seen. Someone who is so wealthy that they don't care for their belongings. Someone who thinks they can swan around in Vietnam without keeping an eye out. It is reminiscent of the swagger of colonial power.