If you ask backpackers what their worst travel fears are, losing your backpack is undoubtably amongst the top five.
After almost three months of travel, I counted myself lucky for not having hit any major bumps on the road myself. However, on the simplest of flights between Luang Prabang (Laos) and Hanoi (Vietnam) my airline lost my backpack. Already having pre booked onward travel through the country, it was a race against time to work out what happened and how to get it back.
This post tells the story of how it happened, how I felt and how I eventually, thankfully, got it back.
After having taken the slow boat from Thailand to Laos and spent three nights in Luang Prabang, it was time to leave Laos and head to Hanoi, Vietnam. Taking two days on the slow boat rather than coach, plane or speed boat, I felt the best way to get across the Laos/Vietnam border was to fly. The ticket was relatively cheap (Â£100) and with Luang Prabang airport conveniently just five minutes from town and just a one hour flight to Hanoi, it certainly seemed like the best transition.
Luang Prabang airport was tiny, just two departure gates and six check-in desks. It felt like a relief to be in such a small airport. From the only departure lounge in the airport, you could see the whole runway with a couple of planes parked on the side. We all saw our luggage trolley with our bags be dragged across the ground in preparation for the flight.
Everyone was pretty calm when we all found out our plane was delayed by an hour due to “adverse weather conditions for the incoming plane from Hanoi”. Unfortunately, one hour turned into two hours, then two turned to four. I skipped the hours of two to four by crashing out, head on my hands, clutching my day sack whilst sitting on the hard plastics seats in the departure room. The four hour delay on a one hour flight felt annoying, but I had been warned about the risk of delays on South East Asia flights many times. It did however, heighten the expectation that once we were in the air, the rest of the journey could only be smooth. Expectation is a bad habit. It sets a bar to which you usually fall from.
Before flying out, I had read up on Vietnam’s notorious taxi services. Dodgy meters, fixed rate only journeys and the roads littered with “easy” bike riders meant it wasn’t a city I wanted to be messing about with arriving late at night. When my hostel offered an airport pickup whereby they sent a driver, with a name card and where you paid the hostel on arrival I took up the opportunity. With the flight the delays, I wasn’t sure if my driver would still be around. They had my flight number, so would know it was delayed, but four hours is enough to test anyone’s patience.
The plane touched down in Hanoi at about 00:30 and I just wanted to get to a bed. The four hour delay had caused quite a bit of disturbance for everyone on the flight. Most passengers, unlike me, were in transit, using Hanoi to connect to other flights to presumably get back home. I was a little relieved to pass the queue of people at the information desk finding out when they would actually get back home.We were the last flight of the night so everyone who were there to pick up bags and stay in Hanoi were huddled around the only conveyor belt in the baggage area. Nothing seemed to be coming out, so a security guard crawled down the inclined luggage track (whilst in motion) and removed a caught bag. Only around ten bags came through before we all returned to staring down the conveyor belt track again. After a couple of minutes, a couple of people went to the luggage desk, so I followed. They took our boarding passes in turn, looked up our bags and told each of us reassuringly, that our bags are here and should be coming out shortly.
“Phew”, I thought. I couldn’t imagine not having my backpack after all this faff.
Fifteen minutes passed and still no bags. I looked back over at the desk and I could see some concerned airport staff faces and papers being handed out. “Oh gees, they’ve actually lost our bags” went through my mind. I walked over and the reality was clear. Aside from the ten or so bags that had come through, they had lost all our bags. I turned to see a couple with the father carrying a new born in a front harness and felt very sorry for them. Compared to a single young adult like me, they must have so much stuff in their suitcases they needed for their child.
What was in my main backpack I was worried about?
Thankfully, I had put a bit of effort into my RTW packing list to split my belongings up, so I could lose my main backpack with little pain and my day sack with more pain. I had my documents, phone, laptop, chargers, camera, glasses and a waterproof in my day sack, so I felt I had all the important bits. My malaria pills (which needed to be taken daily), I could probably go a day or so without before I’d need to find a pharmacy. Items I would shed a tear for were my contact lenses (much easier for adventure activities than glasses) and my hard disk backup of my photos (I had all my photos on my laptop, but felt a little vulnerable knowing that going forwards anything I hadn’t backed up online could be lost). Whilst I didn’t want to be in the situation where I never got my backpack back, I felt it was something I could recover from.
From there, the question was, what had actually happened and would I be getting my backpack back?
Given the number of people filling out forms with me, it was one of two scenarios. They had either been really stupid and just not put a trolley full of them on the plane or, they had sent them on the wrong plane completely. Given we were the last flight out of Luang Prabang, I felt it was probably the former.
It took about 30 minutes to fill out the three forms I didn’t understand, scan my passport and boarding pass. I took photos of all the documents and my boarding pass before handing them over. One included my hostel/hotel address. Thankfully, I had already booked my hostel, so I had the address on my iPhone. It did cross my mind what they would do if I hadn’t or if I moved on by the time they had my bad in a position to send. I was handed 600,000 VND in “compensation” and told to ring a telephone number the following day to find out more. I’ve never filled out important forms so sloppily before. Part of it was me rebelling against the situation and the other part was tiredness. As I filled them out, I remembered reading a blog about what you should do if you lose your luggage. The first tip was to check the other conveyor belts in case they had been put on the wrong one. I turned to look, then remembered there was only one conveyor belt.
Anger – “How could they lose all this luggage on the simplest of flights?” At the time, it was the only flight out of the airport in question and the only flight into the airport in question. Every bag in Luang Prabang should have been on this plane.
Distrust – Having been told my bag was coming when I checked the first time, then finding out it was lost meant I didn’t know what to think. Was the info on the forms enough for them to get my back to me in a hostel in town?
Acceptance – I had no choice. I just need to get to the hostel and deal with it in the morning.
Everyone had a reason why they wanted their bags as soon as possible. Some, more important than others. I think my reason was reasonably high up the pecking order. I had a train ticket to Hoi An for the day after tomorrow and a follow on one to Ho Chi Minh the next day. I didn’t fancy having to forgo places on my already short Vietnam itinerary and having the airline play “chase that backpacker” down the country. It was tempting to tell them that my train was in fact tomorrow, but I didn’t want that to jeopardise someone else who really needed their bag.
I walked out of the arrivals door at 01:30, shattered, but still running on adrenaline. I pessimistically looked for my pickup. There was a bunch of died looking taxi drivers slouched on the chairs and a few on their feet looking for scraps of business. Some had signs, some without. They appeared to be joking about us as we each walked out. It felt like vultures who had stumbled upon the best meal in months – tired travellers upset they had lost their luggage, willing to pay through the nose just to get to where they were staying and 600,000 VND in their hands.
I didn’t fancy chancing one of the cabs, so I called the hostel and tried to ask if it was still around, and if not, then could they send a new one. The person on the phone really struggled to understand me and I slowly got more frustrated. The conversation diminished to silence and I thought I’d wait 15 mins (in case the person on the other end of the phone had understood and sent a taxi) and if it hadn’t turned up by then, get a vulture cab. Whilst on the phone, I was being hounded by the taxi drivers who quite obviously were eyeing up my phone. As I waited for my pick up, more drivers tried to ask where I wanted to go and tried to fake being the pick up I was waiting for. Flashing the wrong name on the sign, telling me the hostel was on the other end of their mobile were impressive ploys. “Taxi bookedâ€¦ taxi booked” was what I said and prayed it would come.
As the other passengers came out of the arrival doors, I noticed two dutch girls and asked by chance if they were going to the same hostel. I did this because, as a traveller, you realise backpackers tend to follow a pattern of where they stay and I was staying at a well known backpacker hostel in town. They looked like typical customers. Sure enough, they were staying at the same place and we waited together for my pick up. 25 minutes passed and no car arrived. During this time, I watched as a couple on the same flight walked out to get a cab and came back in to complain to the unimpressed security guard that no one would turn on their meter. As myself and the two dutch girls walked out to the street, a small mob of drivers including one who had a grin that I particularly didn’t like the look of, tried to usher us into one of their taxis.
One of the girls pointed to the end of the line and said “Mai Linh”. The name suddenly rung a bell. It was the name of the recommended metered cabs in the Lonely Planet guide. With all the pushiness of the illegal cab drivers, I hadn’t thought to look for the metered cabs. We asked the only Mai Linh driver sitting inside the cab the address and when he nodded, we got in. As we stepped in the illegal cab driver muttered something to the Ma Linh driver and gave a look piercing enough to burn a hole in plastic as he saw his catch get away.
The compensation money came in handy, because it was used for the cab ride home. As the cab pulled up to the hostel, two prostitutes opened our doors. We stepped out and went into the hostel. As we were checking in, I couldn’t help but laugh at the wifi password – “ilovehanoi” couldn’t be further from the truth right now.
I crawled into my dorm bed in the dark at 03:00 and fell asleep clutching my day sack in a foetus position. I found myself suddenly very possessive about what was left of my belongings.
I woke the next day and went downstairs to the lobby to call the airport. They couldn’t’ tell me any more than I already knew, so I explained that I was getting a train the next day and I must have my bag urgently so I didn’t miss it. They said they would do their best to get the bag to me that night, but made no guarantees. They didn’t understand why I wanted to confirm my phone number and insisted I just waited for the bag to be delivered to the hostel, with them having the address. We figured between us travellers at the airport that there were only two flights from Luang Prabang to Hanoi each day. One that arrived at 18:00 and one that arrived at 21:00. That meant I couldn’t really expect my bag before the evening. Even so, with the lack of sleep and distrust, I didn’t want to be far away from the hostel or the airport until I had my bag back. With that in mind, I spent the day around Hanoi town, checking out the Hoan Kiem Lake, the shops and watched the local water puppet show.
I caught up with the dutch girls and exchange info from both our calls with the airport. They were told all our bags would be on one of the flights and we should receive them tonight.
When I got back to the hostel, the receptionist who had been calling the airport on the dutch girls’ behalf was shaking her head. She had just called the airport and told that all our bags were still in Luang Prabang because both flights were sold out and so had no room for extra bags like ours.
With all the change of circumstances and mistrust built up, we decided to head to the market to buy some fresh clothes and turn up in person at the airport the following day to make a scene. Part of me wanted to go in the same smelly clothes to prove a point. One bright red Vietnam T-shirt, one pair of shorts and two pairs of fake designer underwear later and I returned back to the hostel. It was about 23:00 and on the way home I had decided to call my insurance company because if my bag was in fact lost (I didn’t trust the airline), they needed to know within 24 hours of the incident. As I went to sit down to make the call, I passed the front desk. I took a double take when I spotted my bag perched just inside the store room door behind. I had no idea why the hostel hadn’t told me my bag had turned up. Then, I didn’t know why they made it so difficult to give me the bag, having to tell the most of the story about what happened. They obviously hadn’t been told what the bag was when it was dropped off and the message between the day time receptionists hadn’t been passed on. It took a proof of name on the tag with my passport to convince them to give it to me. There was also only my bag, not the bags of the two dutch girls.
I sat in the darkness of the reception for a good 30 minutes just looking at the bag. Even though I had stayed reasonably calm throughout the ordeal, I definitely felt a pressure release of some kind.
I turned out that the two dutch girls had their bags by noon the next day. Although their bags were actually on the same flight as mine, the airline had neglected to deliver them with mine. Criminal offence in my mind after they were without it for so long.
What did I learn from this experience?
- Packing important medication, electronics, chargers and your waterproof in your day sack. Putting my malaria pills in my main backpack was probably the only mistake I made in terms of packing, which wasn’t too bad going.
- If your luggage is lost, take photos of your boarding pass and forms as you fill them in. Some of the forms and most definitely your baggage tag, you won’t get back once your bag is lost.
- If you’re flying into somewhere, make sure your hostel/hotel is booked and you have the address to hand. putting down no address on the forms in a similar situation runs more risk of having your bag lost. dictating it over the phone to someone who doesn’t speak good english is far from idea. once the bag is delivered somewhere, the airline couldn’t care less.
- Exchange details with others if they’re in the same situation as you. Pooling information together as the situation unfolds for making decisions is almost certainly better than what you get on your own.
- As for dealing with the stress of the situation, every time i set an expectation about when i would get my bag and that changed, was when i got angry. before i knew anything about what had happened or if i would get my bag back, i was less bothered. expectation, is a dangerous thing. Set markers in time when you need to deal with the situation and try to get back to business all other times in between.