Written from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam; a Manically Hectic Metropolis No Stranger to Petty Theft

As international travel restrictions gradually ease up in 2022, over a billion people are eager to get back out and see the world. Statista.com reported that 1.47 billion tourists traveled internationally in 2019, before plummeting down to just 402 million in 2020.

A chart projecting the rate at which international travel will increase over the next few years.
Whether slight or extreme, international travel is expected to increase over the next few years. (Graph representing Asia).

It’s heartening to know that we can look forward to transitioning from just killing time to living again. But keep in mind that a lot of people are desperate right now and may be looking to grip some quick cash; a phone being the easiest and most obvious target. 

Talk to an expat or somebody who has spent a lot of time traveling, and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll tell you that they or somebody they know have had a phone stolen while abroad.

You probably worked hard for your phone and for what’s on your phone; follow these tips to ensure you don’t lose that, as well as to save your trip and wellbeing from getting a serious damper put on them.

On the Street

1) Only Pull Your Phone Out When You Have Strategic Surroundings:

A lot of us walk every day when traveling, of course. Whether it’s to explore, for exercise, as a method of transportation or simply to feel a part of the hustle and bustle, we walk places. 

It’s tempting to instinctively pull your phone out to change a song, consult a map or check what that vibration was. However, before you do this keep in mind that your phone can be out of your hand and gone before you even hear the sound of the motorbike coming up by your side.

If you’re on a narrow or nonexistent sidewalk with no barrier or curb whatsoever between you and a busy street, then try to find a better place before pulling out your phone. Basically, it just comes down to looking around and trying to understand how a thief on a motorbike would think. If he can quickly, easily roll by and grab your phone and then keep going in a straight line without even adjusting his speed or trajectory whatsoever, then it’s probably better to find another place before you take your phone out.

A narrow sidewalk with a shallow curb in Ho Chi Minh City.
Narrow sidewalk, shallow curb. Not safe for your phone.
A wide sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City with a shallow curb.
Wide sidewalk but shallow curb. Trees as small barriers but not much else. Not really safe for your phone.

Before you finally do draw your phone, put your back to a wall and look both ways. You’re most likely on the sidewalk, so just use whatever storefront or wall is there. Don’t walk around with your phone in your hand.

A lot of sidewalks have short metal bars looping into the ground near intersections to prevent motorbikes from driving on the sidewalk; District 1 in HCMC has a lot of these. If one of those obstructs a thief’s avenue of escape (or entrance) and there is a barrier between the sidewalk and street such as bushes or a tall curb, then you’re safe. Pull out your phone, throw it around, dance with it, whatever. Ain’t nobody is gonna be tryna gank your phone when they’d have to immediately get off their bike to do an 8 point U-turn before speeding off and escaping. 

A sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City bordered by metal bars in the ground to prevent vehicles and motorbikes from entering.
Sidewalk protected in 3 directions. A safe place to use your phone.
A sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City bordered on both sides by trees and vegetation.
Safeish. Only the world’s most ambitious thief would try to snatch your phone here.
A tall curb in Ho Chi Minh City.
Steep, tall curb. If you are more than arm’s length from the curb then you’re alright. Buddy there jogging could have his phone in his hand and he’d probably be ok.

2) Use a Grippy Phone Case

3 different grippy leather iPhone cases.

If your hand is sweaty (or even if not) then a cheap plastic phone case will slide right out of your hand in a tropical climate. Also, I would advise against using a phone case with a ring on the back unless you value your phone more than your finger (if it’s an iPhone 13 Pro then you might). Opt for something grippy such as leather or rubber; this saved my phone from getting snatched up last year. That and… 

3) Wrap Your Hand Around The Top and Sides of Your Phone, Hold Tight

One morning around 5:30 AM I was drunk and stupid and not following rule #1. I was jamming out to some YouTube with my headphones in while walking down a major street in District 1. 

My phone wasn’t in my pocket, it was in my hand because otherwise my pocket would rub against the phone’s screen and switch the YouTube song (-1 to Youtube for not being able to play music with your screen locked; +1 to Spotify because you can). Even though my phone was only in one hand, I had my entire hand wrapped around the top and sides of the phone.

Suddenly, out of the bottom right corner of my eye, I saw the front wheel of a motorbike cutting in front of me at a 45° angle and I instantly felt a brief yet intense yank on my phone. Just one quick pull and then he was gone, no attempt from him to hold onto it or fight for it or anything.

Did he get it? 

Nope, thanks to rules 2 and 3.

A man's hand loosely holding a phone with a street background.
DO NOT hold your phone like this on the street.

Out Drinking

4) Be Mindful of What You Ingest

Remember when your Mom said, “Don’t take candy from strangers.”? 

Well yo, it still applies. 

Don’t accept drinks or cigarettes from strangers. If you’re in the bar without friends, finish your drink before you go to the bathroom; don’t leave it on the bar while you’re gone unless you’re planning on not finishing it. Change your ice. When you leave the bar late at night, don’t drink or smoke anything while on the street; just keep your mask on actually. I’m just going to leave it at that ‘cus that’s a whole other topic that I honestly don’t even want to get into.

5) Use Fingerprint Security

Keep your phone security game on point. An unlocked phone is worth more than twice as much as a locked phone, giving someone more incentive to attempt to take your phone if they can unlock it. That, and someone who unlocks your phone could have access to your banking, social media, emails or any coins that you’re keeping on your device. 

The Pattern (draw a line) and PIN screen lock methods are easy to peek at in peripheral vision and memorize. If you do use either of these screen lock methods, then be careful of your surroundings when you unlock your phone in public.

Last year, my buddy had his iPhone 12 snatched from the hands of the girl he was with while out front of a bar at 4:00 AM. The thief was inside his phone within 5 minutes; he knew the unlock code. So, how’d he know how to unlock the phone? Did somebody in the bar see my buddy unlock his phone and then they told the thief? If so, was it another customer? The staff? The security cameras? The girl? I actually don’t know, but the takeaway is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. So…

If you use a fingerprint unlock, it doesn’t matter how drunk you get, nobody will be able to peek and see your code to unlock your phone. 

Jay Z gotsta be payin more attention to his peripheral.

However, there is still the risk of someone unlocking your phone with your fingerprint if you are really drunk and sleeping, which brings us to rule #6…

At Home

6) Be Careful Who You Bring into Your Home (or Hotel)

Until, 2020, almost every girl I’d ever dated while abroad had gone through my phone while I was drunk and sleeping. It was never to steal money; as you can probably guess, it was to check if there were other girls messaging me. When I was in my early 20’s and broke I honestly didn’t really mind this and even kind of thought it was cute in a way. However, as I’ve gotten older and accumulated slightly more wealth and self-respect I’ve started to view that behavior as intrusive and actually quite unacceptable.

Avoiding bringing the wrong person into your home at night comes down to self-awareness, what kind of judge of character you are, how impaired your judgment becomes when drunk, how desperate you are for company at that moment and of course, your gut feeling.

If you can admit to yourself that you don’t always have sound judgment when it comes to the psychology of people, then don’t be too quick to trust that that attractive stranger that just came and sat by you at the bar at 1:00 AM. What’s more important to you? Think of the possible risks to rewards, is it worth it?

If I feel that I trust somebody well enough to bring them into my life a little bit, I naturally bring up in conversation an honest and fair, but kind warning. Something like, “I view going through my phone as the equivalent of going through my wallet, and I will get just as upset about somebody going through my phone as I would about somebody going through my wallet.” It needs to be said.

Everywhere

7) Download the Applock App to Protect Your Most Sensitive Apps:

Do this, and even if somebody were able to unlock your phone, they would still be locked out of your critical apps. For example, if somebody wanted to get into your banking they would need to pass 3 levels of security: your screen lock, your Applock security protecting your banking app and then hopefully your banking app requires a password too.

Enjoy Your Adventure:

You should definitely have a positive, open and bright outlook when traveling or living abroad, one hundred percent. Most people in most countries are honest, caring people with compassionate hearts (especially in Vietnam). However, there are realities to the world that need to be acknowledged and adapted to.

Taking precautions such as these may seem like being paranoid or distrustful, or counterintuitive to living a relaxed, authentic and enjoyable life. But what I’ve found is that if you get in a habit of following rules such as these then they quickly become subconscious, automatic and second nature. You’ll be keeping your phone safe without even consciously thinking or worrying about it, leaving you free to appreciate the interesting, exciting and unique place that you are hopefully in. 

Vietnamese people happily taking a group selfie.
Most people in Vietnam are honest, caring, compassionate people.

So what about you? Have you had any experiences with phone theft while abroad? Have you got any other tips to add? Get at me in the comments.

James

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John
John
10 months ago

Awesome read! Informative and humorous at the same time.

Floyd Weaver
Floyd Weaver
10 months ago

ive used a tether strap on my phone, similar to a Wii controller for 8.3 times around the world in 4 years. Works wonderful.

Sean Bain
Sean Bain
10 months ago

Good read. Live in HCMC but never had an issue. Know people who have had. More so when they were on the motos using Google maps. What’s the plug in you use for sharing your blogs?