Bag snatching in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

I met a lovely French girl on a bus in Laos who, after the usual exchange of travel plans, told me she got mugged in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon). Luckily there was another westerner nearby who responded to her screams and tackled the criminal to get her bag back. “It’s a great place, just be very careful with your bag” she said. Considering Adam and I had plans to be living there for nearly 3 months, I was thankful she warned us even though I was yet to discover how common an issue it is.

Unfortunately, even after being warned, I wasn’t so lucky.

Ben Thanh Market
~ Ben Thanh Market

Another heads up

Before Adam and I found a house here, we were hostel hopping and the staff at one of them was really concerned for our safety every time we left. I had a small black shoulder bag that I made sure to put across my body instead of just on my shoulder but they still kept telling me and all the other travellers to please be careful with our bags. I took their advice, making sure to face my bag away from the road and keep a hold of it.

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder though whether they were being overly cautious. Then I thought wow, bag snatching really must be a thing if they keep repeating that to everyone heading out the door. Having come down from Hanoi I’d generally felt safe during our time in Vietnam. It’s also easy to assume if you’re careful it’ll never happen to you.

Pham Ngu Lao
~ Keeping a grip of my backpack around Pham Ngu Lao, backpacker central

Drive by bag snatchers!

After getting back into an almost normal life (job hunting, interview attending and house hunting), Adam and I went out for our first dinner with our awesome new housemates. We live in district 1 (the most central out of all 19) and not too far from Bui Vien, one of the notorious backpacker/tourist streets. We had some delicious food at one of our favourite restaurants, 5 Oysters, and then headed to the miniature plastic chairs and tables lining Bui Vien for a jar of disgustingly cheap Vietnamese whiskey and coke.

Bui Vien plastic chairs
~ Goodbye bag! One of our last times together on Bui Vien

After a few games of darts and then some pool at another bar I was feeling positive about living here. I was also thankful that getting home was only a short walk away instead of having to pay for a taxi. We headed down the street, Adam and I up front and two of our housemates behind. We got about 2 minutes down the road, and before I could even register what had happened, I saw two men on a motorbike speeding off, the guy on the back of the bike was clutching my bag with the little thin strap dangling behind in the wind. He even had the cheek to look back at me, I’m certain with a smirk on his face. I felt naked.

I screamed ”Adam they’ve got my bag!!” And we both found ourselves sprinting down the road to try and chase them. I can laugh at this now because as if. They sped off into the distance and down another road never to be seen again.

We stopped in the road and Adam said “What was in it?” “Everything!!” Which was nearly true, except for my passport. Thank god that was safely locked up at home.

Bui Vien by dayBui Vien by night
~ Bui Vien by day
~ Bui Vien by night

The reality was I’d lost my iPhone, new Canon Powershot S110 camera, 1 million Vietnamese Dong is cash (about £30) and some other personal possessions that won’t be worth anything to the thieves but to me they did. Like a beautifully unique Laotian tribal purse bought from an ethnology centre there. I’m still SO annoyed about that.

I was lucky

Even though at the time it felt like the worst thing to have happened, it could have been a lot worse:

  •  Since the event I’ve read some horrible stories where people have been dragged and scraped along the road in an attempt to hold onto their bag. I’m very lucky there were no injuries. Because it seemed to happen so quick, I’m not sure whether the thin strap just snapped when they grabbed my bag or if they managed to knife it, which is scarily common.
  • Just the day before I had imported all the photos from the camera onto Adam’s laptop so I didn’t lose a single one.
  • My iPhone was the 4s and I purposefully didn’t upgrade this before I left just in case anything happened. There was nothing on there that I can’t live without or access on iTunes/iCloud. Oh wait, except VSCOcam, which I just discovered Adam’s phone doesn’t support!
  • My parents are coming out to visit at the end of June so they can bring me my bank cards, and my mum has a spare iPhone!
  • I have a very caring and supportive boyfriend who is now sharing his iPhone and laptop until my parents bring mine out.
  • I have travel insurance and the Vietnamese police weren’t nearly as difficult to deal with as I imagined.

Saigon bikes
~ Bikes, bikes, bikes

Tips I should have followed (and this applies to travelling anywhere)

1. Only carry enough cash for the day/evening. 

This can be annoying when you want to make an impromptu purchase, or have to book a last minute bus or train ticket but it’s better to be safe than sorry. In future I will only take out slightly more than I think I’ll need.

2. Keep one back up debit or credit card in a separate piece of luggage or in a safe place at your hostel/ guesthouse.

I was carrying both my cards around with me and was kicking myself when going through the painful process of contacting two banks in England to cancel them both (with the help of my lovely parents through Skype!).

3. If you have a smartphone and a cheap one with a local sim like I did, assess the situation.

Do you really need to take your iPhone out?

What I know now

You will hardly ever see any Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City carrying bags, except backpacks, or using phones, or getting any sort of valuables out on the streets or on their bikes.

Ho Chi Minh City

My Vietnamese friends have told me most have 2 phones, 1 smartphone and 1 cheap one for making calls out on the road. They never get their smartphone out.

You do hear about drive by grabbing here a lot so it pays to be more careful. One of my housemates had it nearly happen to her but she managed to hold onto her bag. Another’s mum had it happen to her while she was visiting. That’s 3 out of 6 of us.

That being said, sh*t happens, and this type of thing can also happen in any city in the world. I’ve been pick pocketed before in Brighton. Aside from this Ho Chi Minh city is generally a safe city and most of the crime is petty crime.

It’s ok to feel sad, annoyed, frustrated and angry about what happened. It’s also important to accept there are going to be some bad times in between all the great while travelling. As we are here until the beginning of July I know I can’t dwell on it because I will just be miserable the whole time.

Though it doesn’t stop me from wanting to shout “put your valuables away! Please!” every time I see a tourist standing right on the roadside snapping away!

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