I flew from Vientiane, Laos, to Hanoi, Vietnam on my late Dad’s birthday. I was a little sad, but when I found my seat on the plane, I was happy to meet a row of other solo female travelers who made me feel less griefy. We chatted for the duration of the flight and when we landed, we decided to try to catch the Vietnam Airlines shuttle to the Old Quarter together, for a reduced rate. The shuttle was cash only, so I quickly found an ATM and took out 3 million Dong from the ATM ($150 – enough to last a while and save me further withdrawal fees). We were in a hurry, so rather than separate the cash and my debit/credit cards like I normally do, I shoved all my financial means into my wallet and buried it somewhere in the front of my little backpack. We found the van that had the Vietnam Airlines sticker on the back, negotiated our rate, and off we went toward the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
During the 40 minute drive, I chatted with my new friend Danielle while I reorganized my little black backpack to hide my passport, money, and other valuables. (I always do this out of public view when I land in a new country). I double and triple checked everything, and then let myself relax into the van conversation. We marvelled at the passing scenery, Danielle and I took photos of bridges (hers included 50% of the van, mine didn’t, haha), and made plans to hang out that evening for dinner. I told her the name of my hostel, and she said she would meet met at 7pm in the lobby. We arrived in the Old Quarter at roughly 6:15pm, and I hopped out of the van feeling very pleased to be in Vietnam.
I used my maps.me app to walk the rest of the way to my hostel, encouraged by the buzzing vibe I felt in the streets of Hanoi. When I walked into the hostel lobby, I dropped my bag and exchanged pleasantries with the hostel staff before they asked me to pay for the night.
You know that sinking feeling in your stomach when you instinctively know a very real truth?
I had that as I looked down at my little backpack and noticed the zipper was gaping open and my wallet blatantly missing from the front pocket.
I then promptly ignored it.
Instead, I started emptying my bag, thinking really intelligent things such as, “Oh, I must have just moved things around and the wallet is just not in my view,” and, “Hmm, it’s probably in the completely opposite pocket to where it normally is,” and, “Maybe if I empty my entire large backpack, I’ll find it in there!”
Obviously none of it worked and I finally admitted to my very anxious heart that it must have fallen out as I hopped out of the Vietnam Airlines shuttle.
I swung into full survival mode and did everything I could think of, including:
- Asking the hostel if I could pay at check-out. Denied.
- Consider calling family to have money wired to me, however, it was still too early at home for anyone to even be awake. Also, it was Friday, and apparently the Western Unions were all closed until Monday.
- Consider begging on the street.
- Looking around at the other people in the lobby sussing out who would be best to ask for a loan.
- Wandering the street looking at the ground, wondering if maybe it fell out on my walk over.
- Asking the receptionist to call Vietnam Airlines to track down the shuttle.
“Are you sure it’s in the shuttle?”
I was only 76% confident that my wallet was in the shuttle. The other 24% of me was invested in pick-pockets or a random mishap where the wallet fell out on the street. The receptionist, who was insanely preoccupied checking in all sorts of other people, took about 15 minutes to call Vietnam Airlines to track down the shuttle. During this time, I worked really hard on my patience and hoped desperately that the shuttle was still in the vicinity.
She finally got a hold of them, asked me a few questions about the colour and branding of the van, and relayed the information to the person on the phone. I listened intently, hoping to gleam some sort of idea of what she was saying in Vietnamese. When she hung up, she looked up at my earnestly.
“Okay, so they said it wasn’t their shuttle. They changed their vehicle wrapping last year and it’s red, not beige. Unfortunately, there are a lot of “fake” vans that use the Vietnam Airlines logo on their vans to take advantage of tourist dollars. I’m sorry, we won’t be able to track that van down.”
This is about the time I begin to cry. I’m so tired from all the traveling, and I haven’t eaten since 9am. I am well on my way to full-on ugly cry, when Danielle walks in through the glass lobby door. I update her on the details, and she immediately consoles me.
“Who makes a fake fucking shuttle van?! Only in Asia, geez. Okay, I’ll pay for your room and we will sort the rest out later.”
How long had I known Danielle for? Maybe, 5 hours? She was offering to save me without question. Feeling like I was at my wits-end but energized by the kindness Danielle showed me, I accepted the offer and completed my check-in behind a curtain of tears. I was given a room on the 7th floor and rather than wait downstairs, Danielle asked if she could come up and check out how the hostel compared to hers. We laughed at my shit luck in the elevator (what else was left?) and settled into the room. Danielle sat on one of the beds while I unpacked and grabbed a change of clothes for dinner.
Since I was taking a while to organize my things (my hangry, tired, sad brain couldn’t process even changing my clothes), Danielle started looking through her phone and was giggling at all her terrible photos of bridges and parks from the shuttle van.
“If you just used the zoom feature on your camera, it would change your whole photo,” I teased.
“Ya well …” she trailed off. “Wait. Look at this.”
She was so urgent in her tone that I stopped putting my shirt on half way and got up from the floor where my bag was. I leaned over her shoulder and saw that she had a picture of a bridge pulled up on her iPhone that was 50% bridge, 50% …. shuttle van windshield.
“Cool, Danielle, that’s still a terrible-“
We looked at each other. Without uttering another sound, we both turned back to the photo and Danielle began to slowly zoom in on the windshield. There, in all its glory, was a small piece of paper hanging off the rear view mirror. That little piece of paper had a phone number on it.
I jumped up from the bunk bed and started bouncing up and down yelling, “HOLY SHIT!” while simultaneously throwing on the clean shirt. We then sprinted downstairs to reception.
The hostel lady was quick to pick up the phone. She said a bunch of things in Vietnamese while Danielle and I looked on like little innocent puppies before she peered up at me, smiled, and said:
“So it is one of their vans, and they will track down the driver. If the wallet is in there, they will return it to you. If someone else took it or it fell out elsewhere, then I’m sorry but there’s nothing they can do. They will call back in a few hours.”
Elated, Danielle and I found ourselves a rooftop restaurant overlooking a lake and settled in for dinner. The restaurant had a special on where you got 3 giant beer for $2, which Danielle (aka Sugar Momma) bought for me. We practiced our Vietnamese, and relaxed as much as we could before heading back to the hostel to check-in on my wallet. That walk to the hostel from the restaurant was so nerve wracking; I felt like my future was flashing before my eyes.
The hostel receptionist saw me come in the door and somberly began to speak, “Sonia … I have an update.”
I didn’t know whether to walk over and strangle her for the pause that followed or just jump up and down and beg her to tell me what her update was. Then she began to utter the magical words I had been dying to hear since I realized my wallet was gone: they found it.
Do you know what pure elation feels like?
I can tell you that it looks like me high-jumping the reception desk and profusely hugging the receptionist. The whole lobby at this point was invested in my wallet, and I felt like everyone started cheering. I’ve never been so relieved in my entire life.
The driver came by well past midnight and reunited me with my wallet. He recognized me immediately.
The driver also reminded me that I was extremely lucky. In light of that, I’ll do a quick summary of how luck played into my reunion with my wallet.
If ________ didn’t happen, then I wouldn’t have found my wallet.
- If I hadn’t randomly been seated next to Danielle on the plane from Laos.
- If we had jumped in one of those “fake” Vietnam Airlines vans instead of the real one.
- If Danielle weren’t such a bad photographer …
- If there hadn’t been a phone number hanging on the rear view mirror of the shuttle.
- If Danielle and I hadn’t agreed to meet at 7pm at my hostel, I would have had no way of contacting her ever again.
- If Danielle hadn’t shown up.
- If Danielle hadn’t randomly come upstairs with me to check out the room.
- If I hadn’t decided to change my clothes before dinner and made Danielle bored enough to randomly be looking through her photos.
- If the driver hadn’t still been in the area that night to look through the van.
- If humans weren’t so very kind, the last month of my trip would have been very, very different.
Interesting things always happen on my Dad’s birthday.