Getting My Wallet Stolen In Hanoi, Vietnam

 I originally wrote this post to call out the person who stole my wallet and write them a nice message. My wallet was full of business cards with a QR and url to this site, so I knew they would likely visit it. I made that post and had it translated, but now enough time has passed that I would rather just tell you the story than seek justice. I have never had something stolen from me while traveling before. I’ve been made to pay bribes and I have been scammed plenty of times. I’ve had people attempt and fail to rob me before too, but this was the first time someone was successful and it’s because they did it without me knowing.
It was New Years Eve 2017 and Katherine and I were out on the town in Hanoi, Vietnam. Being in the capital of any country on New Years is of course a lot fun. We had already had a pretty eventful night. We had been to a several bars and restaurants and had just left a rooftop bar. The action of the night was at the Heiniken Countdown Party right in the heart of the city. The crowd was crazy and even as we found a spot toward the middle, we found ourselves getting pushed to the front in the chaotic mess of people. We were having a lot of fun. Everybody was having fun. We toasted some beers at midnight and then a new DJ came out and the things really got going. We were having fun dancing and even though I had already been minding my belongings all night, I decided I should go ahead and move them somewhere even safer than my pockets. I put my iphone and my wallet into my jacket pocket and zipped it closed. I figured that would be safer than my pockets because it was higher up on my body and closer to my front where I could see. I was definitely wrong. Even then, I was still checking my jacket pocket every few minutes because I kept forgetting I had moved my stuff from my pants pocket. Just like that though, I checked the pocket one minute and it was fine and then the next and it was open and only my phone remained. I wasn’t super happy when I discovered this. I turned on my flashlight on my phone and had it facing the crowd as I shouted. People backed away and left me in my circle of anger. I was yelling about it a lot, but it fell on deaf ears because no one could understand me. Needless to say I drew a lot of attention. We kind of just stood there dumbfounded for a minute or two and then of course we decided we needed to leave.
At home when you lose a wallet or get it stolen you have to call your card companies as quickly as possible. It is an all out race against the person who has it because they will inevitably go to the nearest store and try and max it out.
The contents of my wallet were:
  • $250 cash (we had literally just gone to an ATM to have cash for the week. Usually I would leave about half of that back in the room),
  • My Colorado driver’s license (So now I get to go to the DMV when I get home before I can legally drive, I will have to pay for a new one, and I will have to carry around my freaking passport if I want to be let into a bar until I receive my new ID),
  • My university student ID card (I’m graduated now so I can’t get a replacement one, which means I will never be granted a student discount again and can’t get into home football games for free anymore),
  • Our only ATM card,
  • A credit card,
  • The wallet itself was a birthday present. It was crocodile leather from a store in Vietnam I had just bought a week before.

So, we go back to our hotel to make some phone calls. The hardest part about that is that it is 1:00 am and I don’t know how to call the US from a Vietnam phone nor do we have a phone to use. So, I can only use an internet line and we have garbage Vietnamese wifi speeds so it takes quite awhile. The banker has to read off the recent transactions to make sure they were all me and I can hear the pity in his voice after he asks me about the $250 ATM withdrawal only hours before the phone call saying my wallet was stolen. We get the cards cancelled and it is now coming up on 3 am. We go to bed late and pretty bummed.

The next morning we get up and take an inventory of what we have now. I am an experienced traveler and so I have made some preparations for just such an occurrence. We are lucky we didn’t lose our passports or my phone. Those are pretty dang important, but so is having money. I intentionally brought backup cards and always keep them separate. I had originally brought two different ATM cards with me, but one of them expired just a month before because we had been gone longer than we had anticipated. Now we realize that we only have a credit card as our source of cash and credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere in SE Asia.There are plenty of restaurants that take credit cards in Hanoi though, so we weren’t shit out of luck for food. Those places are KFC, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Dominos Pizza, and….I think you get where I’m going with this. Needless to say, we had some pretty shameful meals that first day.

Now, I have never had to do a cash advance before so I didn’t know much about it. A cash advance basically just means you can take out cash at an ATM using your credit card, but you pay a larger transaction fee, interest is higher, and it accrues immediately. That’s all fine and dandy with me BUT, if you have never used your credit card like this before you have to call your bank and request a PIN number. They can’t email it to you or give it to you over the phone so guess what Capital One thinks is the most efficient method of delivering this information? By MAILING IT… my HOME ADDRESS!!!! You remember mail right? You know, that stuff NO ONE GETS ANYMORE!? Especially if they are out of the country. They said it would get to me (my house in the US) in 7-10 business days.

So now we are starting to think we might be more screwed than we thought. We have to be out of the country soon because our visa expire, so we can’t just wait in Hanoi eating fast food for two weeks. We’ve got to figure something else out. We learn that a Western Union transfer takes 4 business days to do from a bank account, which is still too long. If you use a credit card it can be same day, but after multiple failed attempts I called Western Union was basically told that they can’t send money same day to Vietnam.

Now we realize that we can’t rely on Western Union and we can’t use my credit card for cash advance. In a last ditch effort we walked into just a random bank and tried to communicate that I wanted to use my credit card to get cash and I can’t use an ATM. I am sure she just assumed I didn’t have any money and my card was getting declined for it. In her mind why would a foreigner be here with a card that he can’t use at an ATM, and be expecting a Vietnamese bank to do something about it. She went to the back and returned with some paper work that basically said they would run my credit card for any amount plus 4% and then pay me out the cash. That was great news.

After our experience thus far we have now pretty much marked off being able to use an ATM or Western Union for the rest of our trip. We knew we needed enough cash to last about a month in Loas or at least until that PIN number reached my home back in the US. I had to play it safe in case the PIN didn’t work though. I didn’t want to be stranded again. So I wrote down $1,500 usd on the paper. She saw the usd part and told me they could only give it to me in dong which I already knew I just couldn’t do the conversion on the spot. After the conversion rate it came to something like 40 million Vietnamese Dong. When she handed the paper to her supervisor her eyes popped out of her head at the amount. Based on the fact that the safe in the bank was right up front and the size of a dorm room mini-fridge, I am going to assume that Vietnamese banks don’t keep a whole lot of cash on hand. She puts the money through the bill counter and then just kind of shoves it across her desk to me like I had just won a round of poker. Forty-million Dong might as well be in a duffel bag or a metal briefcase. I had to wad up the cash and stuff it in my pockets. With that, we got up and turned our backs to the group of puzzled bankers and walked out of there.

I haven’t yet received that PIN number, so I still don’t know if that will work out. In the meantime we’ve divided up the cash and are making our way towards Laos. Ordinarily, if this ever happens to you, you will just have to wait a couple of days for a wire transfer, Western Union, or even for your bank to mail you a new card. However, our situation was unique as we had to keep moving to make it out of the country before our visa expired. There are obviously a lot of things a should have done differently and probably some solutions I didn’t even think of. We handled it well though and while it did occupy two days of our time and cause a lot of trouble, it isn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened. We both learned a few things from the experience and now it is just one more for the books.

What I have learned:

  • You should make PIN numbers on all of your credit cards just in case you ever do need a cash advance
  • You should check the expiration date on all of your cards before leaving the country
  • You should really just leave your wallet hidden in your hotel room when you go out and only take the cash you might use for the day with you.
  • You should definitely bring a back up credit card and let a travel buddy hold on to it or stash it in your bag
  • Some banks will let you use them like an ATM for your credit card without a PIN number.
  • Western Union fees are actually lower than they are for using an ATM
  • Those numbers on the back of your cards to call that say “for outside the US” don’t just work when you pick up any phone. Even though it’s toll free there is a calling code you should know
  • If the DJ puts on Sean Paul and you have been drinking all night, you are very vulnerable to theft.


3 Replies to “Getting My Wallet Stolen In Hanoi, Vietnam

  1. CJ,
    Sorry to hear about your wallet. Wanted to let you know it is with great pleasure I read your posts and blog items. Not only is your writing informative and entertaining but also always ignites my hope for your generation. Your sense of adventure is a great quality hopefully this won’t spoil it. Wishing both of you a wonderful New Year.
    Kevin V.

  2. Lyle and I are so sorry to hear about this. We were very lucky on our 4 months of travel but it takes just one time to make you realize you can never let down your guard. I hope you can find the funds to continue your travels. If not, I’m sure I know at least 4 parents who would love to see you return home. Take care and Happy New Year.

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