If you travel a lot, you know that in some popular tourist destinations, there’s a higher risk of being mugged or having your valuables (like smartphones) snatched or stolen. Thankfully, I’ve avoided all of this… until now.


What happened?

One rainy afternoon in Saigon, I was standing on the side of a fairly busy road whilst waiting for a bus to take me to the office. Even though my destination was less than two kilometres away, I only had ten minutes to get there, and I was debating about whether I wait for the bus, or grab a motorbike taxi.

In order to make the most informed decision, I thought that I’d check the GPS location of the next bus via a local bus mapping iPhone app.

Even as I was removing my iPhone from my pocket, I was aware it was something I shouldn’t be doing on a busy street. The majority of my local friends had warned me of the risks of a smartphone being snatched whilst standing on the street, and many of them had lost several phones to such attacks.

However, I was in a rush, and I decided to do it anyway. To reduce the risk of any theft, I held my opened umbrella so as to act as a partial barrier between myself and the road.

Within a few moments of having my phone exposed, I had a full body sensation that something big was just about to happen. It was so powerful, it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could ignore. My body went into full alert.

From then on, everything happened in slow motion.

In my state of alert, I heard a motorbike accelerating, so I immediately glanced up. And I still can’t get out of my mind what happened next.

My vision quickly focused, with everything on the periphery being blurred out. I saw a motorbike driver crossing over to my side of the road, and heading straight for me. He was driving with one hand on the wheel and his other with his arm locked, fist opened, and hand steadied. He had this look on his face that was a combination of desire and intense focus. It has since become indelibly imprinted in my memory.

I had no time to think.

Intuitively, I knew that within a few moments he was going to try and steal my iPhone, and that I had no real time to mentally process anything. Almost instinctively, I moved the umbrella that I was holding in one hand slightly to the left, and he hit the handle of my umbrella, permanently bending it, but just missing my phone. He quickly sped off down the road and around the corner.

I was in a state of shock (and relief), and I followed his path around the corner. He saw me, and sped off down the road, vanishing out of sight.

I spent a few minutes trying to regather myself on the side of the road.

As it turned out, he did a lap around the block and drove by again.

I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps he was going to have a second attempt to steal my phone.

I recognised his unique motorbike helmet, and we locked eyes, before he sped off again. I’m pretty sure he’s cruising the streets of the inner city again today, looking for another victim.

What I learned

In retrospect, this kind of incident is probably something I should have expected to happen at some time or another. Given that the average wage here is only around $200 – $300 a month, it makes a $1,000 iPhone very attractive.

While many people had told me stories of having their phones snatched, or that it was common in this city, I thought it was probably just opportunists, and not professionals scouring the streets looking for a victim.

In fact, even on this website, I’d written a blog post that included a video from YouTube of an iPhone being stolen in Saigon, showing just how skilled some of these thieves are. I never thought it would happen to me.

Now, I just accept that there are places in the world where this kind of attack, mugging, or thefts from bags is commonplace, and that I need to be more aware when I’m in these cities. Many guidebooks will alert you to this risk for the destinations you’re traveling to.

How I changed my workflow

Since the time of that attack, I’ve thought a lot about what I need to do in order to protect my valuables when I’m out on the streets. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with.

I have two layers to my snatch and attack strategy. The first is the foundation:

  • Insurance – obviously, travel insurance is going to defray the cost to you if your phone is stolen. Travel insurance that covers your tech gear can be complex. I wrote about it in depth in iPhone Travel Life and Android Travel Life.
  • Backup – if you lose your phone, you want to be up and running again with minimal disruption. That’s why a good backup strategy is essential when you travel. When my iPhone 3Gs was stolen from my hotel room several years ago, my very first thoughts were what have I lost and what data is exposed to others? With a good backup strategy, you’ve got this part of the equation covered.
  • Security – again, this is a complex issue for both Android and iPhone, and I cover this in much detail in my books. Securing your mobile device is something you want to think about before your phone is lost or stolen. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths online about how easy it is to recover your stolen phone. Its best you understand these issues before you travel.

The next level of my workflow is related to snatch attacks that may occur on the street in high-risk cities:

  • Leave the phone at home. I’ve decided that if I really don’t need to have my phone with me, I’ll leave it at home. It also gives me a break from my tech.
  • Use a cheaper phone. I’m exploring the possibility of using my less expensive Android phone more often when I’m out and about.
  • Keep the phone in my pocket while on the streets. In Saigon, it is not uncommon for someone to whizz past you on the wrong side of the road or on the footpath, making it quite easy for them to take your phone with them.
  • Have deep pockets. Its best to keep my phone in a deep pocket and the one which is away from the roadside. If I’m somewhere there is a big crowd of people, I might even keep a hand in the pocket my phone is in.
  • Remain mindful. This involves not getting lost in instant messaging, or maps apps, and losing awareness of what is happening around me.
  • Be careful in areas where there are a high concentration of foreigners. I’m told that lots of drive by snatch attacks happen every day around areas where the foreign tourists stay.
  • Where possible, use my phone indoors. If I need to do something like book a motorbike taxi or check a maps app, I try to do that inside a building, for example, inside a convenience store. If not, I stay super aware and try to put my body in a position that would make it very difficult for someone to drive by and snatch my phone. (For example, I’ll stand off the road and behind a gate.)
  • Avoid sitting near the bus door. People also regularly steal phones from fellow passengers traveling on the bus.
  • Avoid sitting near cafe doors. If I’m using a laptop or working in a cafe, I won’t sit near the door or outside where someone could grab my gear. It goes without saying that I would never leave my gear unattended to go to the bathroom.
  • Be mindful of how I carry things whilst traveling on motorbikes. I’ve been told that people are killed in Ho Chi Minh City when another motorbike driver comes by and tries to slash their bag straps or pull the bag off their victim’s body. Sometimes they end up pulling the victim onto the road and into oncoming traffic. I’m told that for this reason, many people put their bags in between them and the driver, or lock them to a hook on the front of the motorbike.

On the whole, I’m glad that I learned this lesson without losing my expensive iPhone. However, I’m quite sad that I have to take all of these extra precautions now to safeguard my gear in high-risk cities.