On Traveling with a Smart Phone

Oct 15, 2013 in Tech, Vietnam | 4 Comments

I’d been thinking on the ramifications of traveling with my iPhone for some time now, and now that an inattentive moment and a group of street kids have parted me from my beloved gadget, it seemed a good time to write about it.

Honestly, I’ve kinda felt like I was cheating somehow, that as a “flashpacker” I am missing out on some important portion of the traveling backpacker experience. I am rarely lost, because Google Maps was always there to tell me approximately where I was, and to show moto drivers where I wanted to go, when it was obvious my pronunciation of street names was faulty to the point of being incomprehensible. With the Google Translate app, the World Nomads language app, the ICOON point it dictionary app, and the WikiTravel page for basic Vietnamese cached in Chrome, communicating was way easier than it probably had a right to be, despite the fact that this is a tonal language, and I completely tone deaf. With my Currency Converter, I was never confused by exchange rates, and with the Trail Wallet app I was tracking all my expenditures, to see just how over budget I am. The calculator, a conversion app (kilometers to miles, Fahrenheit to Celsius, seriously), Flashlight, and the alarm clock all got regular use. Calling and texting in reservations meant not having to wander the streets looking for lodging in time-honored fashion. And of course Facebook and Instagram—are you ever really eating alone if you can post pictures of pho across the globe?


But with all this help, was I missing some essential part of travel, of getting lost, and using sign language, and my wits alone, and of not being one click away from home? Is there a mental space I haven’t entered yet, of a true traveler versus a simple tourist? Or is this speculation foolish, and it is okay, if not best, to use all the tools one has at hand, that no one expects anyone to traverse the globe with nothing but a sextant and notebook—and that the lessons we learn from travel are bigger than the tools we use?

All I know at this point, is that with my iPhone gone, I keep reaching for it to take a photo, to translate a restaurant’s sign, to look up a train timetable… and that I have no idea what time it is.
Maybe I should buy a watch.

The evening I was pick-pocketed, I was out with friends from Cheeky Monkey Bar, and they were very upset by the incident. The word was put out on the street that I was their friend and wanted my phone, and would pay for its return. Two days after I finally left Saigon, Ken, the owner of Cheeky Monkey, messaged me on Facebook to tell me that a guy had come by the bar to sell my phone back to me, and that if he’d been there at the time, he’d have bought it for me himself. By that time, I’d gone ahead and purchased a used iPhone 4s from a skinny Vietnamese man with a John Waters mustache for 8.8 million dong, and let Ken know it was okay to tell the guy to fuck off.
(Pro-tip: when purchasing a used iPhone, verify that the IMEI number has not been reported stolen, otherwise it will be blocked by many carriers. I used T-Mobile’s quick checker.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I was relieved of the second iPhone by a speeding moto driver in Hanoi, who snatched it out of my hand while I was using Google Maps to find my way home one night. And yes, I bought another one.


  1. Joshua
    October 15, 2013

    Best post yet.

  2. Will
    October 15, 2013

    For the record, I did travel with just a notebook and sextant (and a surfboard) and one thing that has not changed for travelers in many hundreds of years is the fact that locals will filch your stuff. Look what happened to Captain Cook in Hawaii!

  3. Anne
    October 17, 2013

    Keep those iPhones coming.
    It’s not cheating, it’s merely 2013.

  4. Luanne
    October 24, 2013

    I learned more about what my iPhone can do from your blog than anything else I’ve seen. Thanks !! Apple ought to pick up your blog and follow your travels. And pay you for the publicity. Who do I contact at Apple to get them into the loop ? I’ll give this some thought. Thanks !


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