If you’re just joining this story you can get up to speed by first reading Part One and Part Two.
I was shocked. We all were shocked. Of all the scenarios, my phone popping up on Francois’ iPad seemed the least likely. Though only 9 a.m., the three and half hour roller coaster ride had already taken a toll on my energy. Seeing my phone’s signal light up on that map provided the shot of adrenaline that would fuel the next four hours of frustration.
All the roads on the iPad’s map were written in Vietnamese, so I shouted for Mao to come quickly. Her and the other guide skipped down the stairs and joined us under the shade of the coffee shop’s balcony.
Both their demeanors changed immediately and for the first time all morning I got the sense they were on my team. With all of us huddled over the iPad, Francois and I tried to teach the guides how to zoom in and out, while they went back and forth trying to pinpoint the exact location on the map. They struggled mightily with the touch screen until finally agreeing on the exact street the dot was showing up on.
Lao Cai, Mao said. Your phone is in Lao Cai.
The ping was detected at 8:03 a.m., just an hour before. Lao Cai is more than an hour’s drive from where we were – how the hell could my phone already be so far away? Shit. My balloon of enthusiasm began to deflate. We’d spent a few hours in Lao Cai just the day before. What do you bet this ping is from yesterday and the time difference on Francois’ iPad is registering incorrectly?
But, before I could allow my pessimistic voice to speak, Mao was already on one of her two cellphones calling her friend in Lao Cai, while texting someone else in Sapa with the other. Meanwhile, Francois and Marie had now plugged the information into Google Earth and were trying to download the street’s satellite image.
Frantically working together, ironically, we’d all become a team. A beautiful synergy emerged between us during those moments. And, even then, recognizing that the chances of seeing my phone again were slim, not only did their actions restore a little faith in humanity for me, but it also allowed my brain to more easily hurdle the pessimism that continued to stand in its way. No matter if it meant Ashlie and I’d be forfeiting the days already paid for itinerary, the collected determination amongst those four strangers only magnified my will to hunt this thing down.
After exchanging a handful of calls and texts, Mao’s friend in Lao Cai asked that we email him a photo of the map with the ping on it. Upon receiving it, he called back to say the street the dot was showing up on was home to two second hand phone shops. Really? You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Assuming that the ping wasn’t delayed or a miscalculation, how the hell did my phone get from the bottom of those massive mountains up to the city of Lao Cai? Marie and Francois’ guide was positive the brother and mother had left the home stay far too late to have played a role in my phone being that far away. Their guide then whispers to Mao, The Sister! The two guides exchanged a few sentences in their dialect and Mao quickly made another call.
Where did the sister go so early this morning, I asked.
To work, Mao says. She works in Sapa.
Sapa is only a half hour’s drive up from the bottom of the village. My phone was potentially in Lao Cai, an hour further outside Sapa.
But, the bus that drops the sister off in Sapa continues its route on to Lao Cai, the other guide explained.
Presumably not wanting to implicate her own people, it appeared as though she didn’t realize she’d spoken that last sentence in English. Nevertheless, assuming my phone really was in Lao Cai, the scenario just cleared itself up.
The first one to leave the house that morning was the sister. She got on a bus to Sapa. After dropping her off in Sapa, that same bus concluded its journey in Lao Cai, where my phone last pinged. Son-of-a-bitch. The last person I would’ve suspected had stolen my phone – and sold it to someone on her bus – and that someone now has it in Lao Cai.
Mao convinced me that calling the police was not a good idea. Not only might it cause Ashlie and I problems when continuing to travel through Vietnam, it would also strongly decrease the likelihood of getting my phone back. Having heard multiple horror stories of foreigners dealing with the law on this side of the planet, I decided to use the threat of calling the police as a last resort only.
No matter if we carried on with the tour or continued to chase the phone, we were already scheduled to be in Lao Cai that night for a sleeper train back to Hanoi. So, if my phone was in Lao Cai, the risk of continuing on with our day’s itinerary meant my phone would likely be in China by the time we arrived for our train later that evening (Lao Cai literally borders the southern tip of China).
If there’s any chance of getting your phone you have to forget the rest of your itinerary and we go to Lao Cai now, says Mao.
Ashlie and I agreed. Even if we go on a fruitless, wild goose chase, at least we gave it our best shot. I’d be able sleep better knowing I swung and missed, versus not even stepping up to the plate.
Mao, call the driver and tell him to come now and get us. We’re going to Lao Cai.
Just beginning to rain, it was time for Marie and Francois to leave. Though they might not be ‘our new best friends for life’, per se, the lengths they went to over those three and a half hours is something I will never forget.
Socks and shoes soaked from the rain, we’re back in the van heading up to Sapa. Our main backpacks were in storage at the hotel we’d stayed at two nights before. Once back at the hotel, the plan was to download the ‘Find My iPhone’ app on our laptop and see if there had been any movement on the phone. If not, we carry on and make the hour drive to the phone shop in Lao Cai.
Upon arriving to the hotel in Sapa, Mao receives a call from our ally in Lao Cai.
Is your iPhone black, with a black case?
Ok, my friend is on his way to the street of phone shops now.
As thrilled as I was at the potential of my phone being in that shop, I knew that any keen shop owner would be clever enough to cover his ass by deleting all information off a stolen iPhone.
While Ashlie was on her laptop downloading the app, I tried to figure out how to get the serial number to my phone (God bless you, Google).
Sitting between us in the hotel lobby, Mao hangs up from another phone call. Her cheeks instantly blushed bright red and she dropped her face into the palms of her hands.
What is it?
I’m sorry, Adrian. My friend was just at the shop and the owner says he did buy your iPhone early this morning, but he sold already to another Vietnamese man. And that man sold it to another man.
Un-effing-believable. You can imagine the feelings of frustration and defeat.
Is there any way of getting a hold of the man who now has my phone? I’m willing to pay that guy if he’ll just let me download the photos off my phone, he can keep the damn thing after.
She called her friend to ask, and he said he would try to locate the man and then call us back.
I was close to my wit’s end. I asked the receptionist if it was possible for me to go into a unoccupied hotel room and blow-dry my socks and shoes. I hate being wet and I equally needed a few minutes to myself. Something deep down told me it was now time to consider waving the white flag. Was my phone and those photos really worth dealing with Vietnamese thieves?
With no rooms available she handed me a hair dryer and ask that I kindly use it away from the front of the hotel’s reception. I sat in the back corner for 10 minutes blow-drying my shoes and socks, while mentally preparing myself to withdraw from this chase once and for all.
I returned to where Ashlie and Mao were sat, and Mao hangs up her phone again. Her plump cheeks once again shine red.
Adrian, my friend has found the man with your phone. He couldn’t figure out how to use it and has now taken to same shop to sell back. But, I’m sorry, half your photos and information have already been deleted.
Who would buy a stolen iPhone and then return it? How was only half the information deleted if he couldn’t figure out how to use it? Once again, everything seemed, felt and smelt like a lie.
There were at least 450 photos from the day before. If only half were gone, the phone was still of great value to me. Seemingly inviting more self inflicted pain, I decided that we carry on with the hunt.
While in the van on our way to Lao Cai we began trying to calculate how much the phone was worth if indeed in the hands of this phone dealer. What if the phone has been wiped clean – no photos, no nothing? What if half the information was still on it? What if all the information was still on it? How much is a new one? Can I find a new one before we leave for the mountains of Nepal?
Mao’s friend in Lao Cai called twice while we were leaving Sapa, demanding that we hurry, in the event the shop owner gets cold feet and either ‘sells’ it again, or simply makes it disappear. Along with the high speeds of the minivan, the twisting hairpin turns (and I’m sure the continuous stress of the morning) woke up Ashlie’s sensitivity to motion sickness. Her face lightened in color and her eyelids began to shutter. We hadn’t checked in with one another all morning, the circumstances all passed too quickly. Without acknowledging what was easy to see, I silently willed her to fight through it. Not now, I said to myself. Please, Ash, push through this.
The minivan dropped us off at the restaurant where Mao’s friend works in Lao Cai. We unloaded all of our bags while the two of them whispered in the back corner of the café.
My friend wants to let the rain die down a bit, we wait here a few minutes.
As badly as Ashlie wanted to go, I was afraid the phone dealer would see her as a weakness. I asked that she let me go alone. So, with all our belongings semi-circled around her at the café, Me, Mao, and her friend left Ashlie behind and began walking in the rain.
Other than the shining puddles of rain, Lao Cai’s streets were bare. I drug my flip-flops through the water and couldn’t help but wonder, ‘How the hell did I get here?’
Mao’s friend points across the flooding street and I see the phone shop.
Please, Adrian, don’t be angry or say anything. Let my friend talk to the man.
I knew this cat had no doings in my phone actually being stolen that morning and as pissed off as I was, my anger should not be aimed towards him.
The small shop was dark and dirty. An ‘L’ shaped glass case was haphazardly filled with junky old phones that looked like they’d all been dipped in dust. As the three of us shook off the rain out front, the owner emerged from the back of his shop. A handsome thirty-something, he looked nothing like the hustling thief I’d imagined him to be.
Presumably checking to see if there were any police with us, he continued to glance past the three of us out onto the street. Blatantly avoiding my eye contact, he slowly pulled a thin, black phone out from his front, right jeans pocket. In stark contrast to everything else in that room, the device immediately looked too clean to be my phone.
Even after holding it in my hand, it didn’t have the feel of my phone. I hit the home button and the factory screen lit up. All the writing was now in Vietnamese. I found my way to the ‘About’ screen and it read “Tim’s iPhone”. I went to the ‘Photo Albums’ and they were empty. The phone had been reset, cleaned and cleared.
If it hadn’t been for my serial number at the bottom of the ‘About’ screen, I couldn’t have been 100% sure this was indeed my phone. But, it was. The photos were gone. Never to be seen again.
As devastated as I was, I still planned on leaving that shop with my phone. But, by all the lengths that were gone to he knew how desperately I wanted my phone, and even with my data being deleted he wanted $500 bucks for me to buy it back.
The next hour and a half was full of mind games. During the entire time I was there he only looked me in the eyes for an accidental two seconds. And it was during those two seconds that I lightly put my right hand on his forearm and energetically searched for his sympathy.
I don’t know if it was that brief physical exchange or not, but soon after he began lowering his asking price. By the end of the day, I had to take a Taxi to two different ATM machines and give this man 5 million 500 thousand Vietnamese Dong ($275) to get MY phone back.
As excited as I am having it once again, a small part of me will forever mourn the loss of those photos. And, unfortunately, the entire incident was yet another distasteful experience had here in Vietnam. For as many things as I admire and respect about these people and their culture, this is a country that will chew you up and spit you out at the blink of an eye.
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