The sun is going down, sluggish in the wet November air, when we descend the last of the 500 steps at Hang Mua Peak. Sweaty and slightly out of breath, we take our bicycles and begin pedaling back to the hostel. We had spent a great afternoon looking over the lush surroundings of Tam Coc, where the Red River Delta of the Ninh Binh province serpents through perfectly round mountains, and rice fields adorned by small villages stretch across the scenery and dissipate into a misty skyline. Tired and satisfied, we were happy knowing that we would arrive at the hostel to enjoy a relaxed, tasty dinner.

But halfway into the intertwining path towards it, my sister stops behind me. I look back to see her fidgeting with her pockets.

man and boy biking on road“Can’t find my phone!”

Here we go again… You ought to know that my sister can always find a way to misplace her phone. The question is never whether it will happen; it’s when.

“Ai filha, have you looked properly?”

 I ask with impatience, halfway hoping she’ll find it.

“Yes, it’s not here!”, she yells back, sweat gathering under her nose.

“Shoot.” I take my phone and check the Find My iPhone app. The battery reads 40%, which isn’t great. Still, the map on screen starts moving and a green circle appears way back on the road where we came from.

Frantically we start pedaling towards the circle, the bicycles squeaking in effort as tires go through the dirt. We pass farmers and rice fields, then walls and houses, before realizing that the circle is moving, fast. Someone has taken the phone, and is surely escaping our grasp. The battery keeps draining: 30%.


Now we’re practically flying through the streets of a village we didn’t know, blindly following the circle. Our legs are cramping up, sweat clouding our eyes. The bicycles keep shrieking as metal scrapes and screws loosen with every bump on the road. This is pointless. Every time we check, the circle moves further along, as if it knows we’re coming for it.

We’re now quite far from our hostel, and no closer to getting the phone back. At an impasse, we decide to stop. Sitting near the edge of a home, I click through the options and write a message with our hostel’s name, pleading to the phone’s finders (and conceivably, keepers) to reach out to me.

woman smiling and holding flowers in fieldBattery: 23%. My sister stans on the side street, her face red with anger, eyes shimmering with tears. I can understand how she feels. These weren’t tears of “I-just-lost-my-phone-sadness,” although nowadays losing one’s phone means losing the crutches of our limping brains, bank details, messages, maps, memories. 

Rather, what’s paining her is the would-be immaturity of it, the thought of telling our parents and consequently undermining the concept that she’s now a responsible adult. The irony is that neither of us has lived with our parents for years, but minds in distress work in fascinating ways.

Ping — a message arrives. “Hiya, I found your phone at Hang Mua and took it back to my hostel, Zen Tree Homestay.”

My sister exhales with relief. But now we have another problem — my maps app is acting up, and we have no idea where we are. Just another situation that would drive our parents up the wall with worry, I think… But then, well, what they don’t know won’t kill them. 

Battery: 12%. Overhead, gray skies were growing darker.

Hastily I look up our hostel for the number and give Ly, the host, a call. I try to describe where we are, but this proves tricky. Other than the crossroads, some simple houses, trees and electricity poles, there are no distinguishing landmarks.

cyclist on dirt road next to lake

“Is anyone there?” Ly asks.

I look around and spot an old woman, silver hair tied in a bun, who has stopped sweeping the floor to our left to observe our sorry drama.

“Yes”, I tell Ly. “OK, put her on”.

Awkwardly, I show the woman my phone and hand it over. After what seems like a never ending conversation — during which I start to wonder if the phone has died, and she’s just started talking to herself — the woman finally hands it back to me.

“OK, so my friend will co…”.

RIP phone. A lonely street lamp flickers on above us. Night falls.

“Tam Coc?” I ask the woman.

She points over to the street on our left and twists her arms a few different ways, attempting to show us where to turn. Pretending we’d memorized the whole explanation, we set off again.

men giving thumbs up beside road
Roadside assistance in Ninh Binh.

The dim light of my small flashlight blinks on, barely illuminating even the front tire, but we carry on in the dark. In the end, we manage to find our way back to the hostel, where Ly is expecting us. Her friend Hien, a taxi driver, then picks up my sister’s phone and brings it back. Ly, like the generous and stubborn lady she is, refuses any sort of payment, maintaining that Hien was happy to help. Still, my sister managed to slip him a tip.

“Grab yourself a beer, at least. Thank you so much!”

And with this, we sit down on the patio with Ly, at last enjoying the delicious dinner cooked for us. An American lady and our French roommate sit around us, and together we listen to an older Spanish man strumming on a worn-down guitar.

Our phones remain in our room, maybe vibrating with incoming messages, or not. That evening, they would not be missed.

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