Guidebooks used to be the first item thrown into a backpack. But guidebook sales dropped 40% between 2007 and 2012. Around the same time, user-generated review website TripAdvisor started to gain serious traction. In 2012, TripAdvisor announced that they were the world’s largest travel website with 280 million unique monthly visitors. Despite claims of widespread fraud, and a hoaxer in the UK who recently got his garden shed to number one on the London restaurant list, the 60 million-member review “Goliath” is so powerful it has transformed the tourism industry of entire nations.
TripAdvisor’s listings, including its coveted upper reaches, are decided upon by the website’s “Popularity Ranking Algorithm,” which it last refined in 2016. Reviewers give a ranking between one and five “bubbles” (not stars, which helps TripAdvisor to distinguish its ratings from the official global hotel recognition system). Then the algorithm provides a ranking based on three factors: the quality, quantity, and recency of reviews.
Among the current top ten (at the time of writing) are dining-in-the-dark restaurant Noir (#3), The Garlik On De Tham (#4), and vegetarian lounge, Hum (#10). There are also new entries like Poke Saigon (#5) in the “cafe apartment” building at 42 Nguyen Hue, and some surprises like King Kebab at 230 Bui Vien (#2). For the record, Home Finest Saigon Restaurant at 252 Dien Bien Phu is the current #1.
With so much focus on the top, we wondered how things looked at the bottom of the current list of 2,883 restaurants—we wanted to know which are the worst restaurants in Saigon? To do that we needed to apply our own criteria. Lots of restaurants languish at the bottom of the list through a lack of attention—even an exciting new five-bubble bar and bistro like Biker Shield needs more than the two customer entries it currently has to make an impact. And hundreds of others remain off the radar with no reviews at all. To be considered one of the worst restaurants in Saigon, our seven needed to have received feedback in the last four weeks (to ensure they are still underwhelming and open) and at least ten user reviews to show the experience was so negative it drove a significant number of people online to complain. We also excluded chain restaurants even though mystifyingly 53 people have taken the time to review the McDonald’s on Dien Bien Phu (it currently has a lackluster three and a half bubbles).
Finding the seven worst restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, we hope to reveal how businesses survive despite the power of review aggregators like TripAdvisor, and what lessons the food and beverage scene here can gather from our dig in the ratings bin.
Thao Dien Village Tapas Bar: “Kafkaesque”
As the sun sets and a cargo boat floats silently by on the Saigon river, it’s hard to believe this is one of the worst restaurants in the city. But with an average of 2½ bubbles from 14 reviews—and 14% of people rating this restaurant as “terrible”—Thao Dien Village Tapas Bar has taken an “absolutely stunning” area, and created a “Kafkaesque” nightmare with “terrible food.”
The menu offers an ambitious mix: there’s breakfast and burgers, a tapas and oyster bar menu, Italian dishes that include a long list of pastas, pizzas and mains like the pollo alla dialova (VND 225,000) and the veal involtini (VND 295,000); there’s Vietnamese cuisine provided by Ngon Restaurant, and Thai food by Chaba Thai.
The back page of the menu prematurely proclaims “Thank You & See You Again.” It’s doubtful they saw one reviewer again who ordered chicken pho for his wife which contained shrimp…she had a seafood allergy.
Perhaps guests just haven’t discovered the ingenious “Gin & Tonic Club Menu.” It features 21 renditions of the classic sundowner, crowned by the neon-yellow Ungava gin, pink grapefruit, and tonic version for VND 190,000.
Star Cafe: “Outrageous”
It might be an exaggeration to claim the prices are ten times higher than normal (as one reviewer does), but Star Cafe inside the international airport do charge extortionately. With ham and cheese baguettes being sold for USD $7 maybe they have a point. Plus guests probably feel the injustice of airport overcharging in Vietnam more than anywhere—low-cost street food is available just hundreds of meters from the check-in gates.
It’s not only Star’s problem. The Burger King here also receives terrible reviews with the same complaints about price. And airport cafes have been confounding flyers with their pricing policies globally for some time. It’s true, the cost of operating retail outlets at airports is more expensive, and additional overheads apply like the cost of security checks for employees, but many operators seem to take unfair advantage of their captive audience.
There are signs of change. The government are threatening fines for overcharging. And Star Cafe are evolving. The have a number of outlets here, both inside and outside the terminal. Their latest, by the newly extended international gates, shows a growing design consciousness—there are red lampshades, and lines of plastic mini bay trees that separate customers facing each other along their pine benches. However, they still have a way to go before the decor distracts guests from the prices and the quality of the food. As one reviewer complained: “I ordered a mini pizza which was terrible. I took one bite and had to throw away the piece of crap…”
Crazy Buffalo: “If there’s a Vietnamese Gordon Ramsay he needs to help these guys out”
Crazy Buffalo’s low ranking is no accident. Over 200 reviewers have taken the time to rate the iconic but fire-prone “Crazy Bar, Crazy Chillout, Crazy Night Club” at the intersection of Bui Vien and De Tham. Of those, 35% decided that it’s “terrible.” It’s the least likely place you’d ever find Gordon Ramsay.
Still, Crazy Buffalo survives blazes and bad reviews. When we go in, in the early evening, it’s totally empty. It feels like a house party where the host is starting to worry no one is going to turn up. A pair of decks are set up on a foldable table which encroaches on the space reserved for the pool table.
Clearly Crazy Buffalo gets busy later, and some people are having a good time against the odds: “There was a DJ and my friends and I had a good time dancing however there isn’t a dance floor but nobody seemed to mind that we went for it anyways,” one reviewer hazily remembered.
Donkey Bar & Restaurant: “No redeeming qualities”
Donkey Bar & Restaurant is locked in a death roll to the bottom of our list of worst restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City with Crazy Buffalo. Out of forty reviews 33% are “terrible,” including some serious charges against the Donkey’s security for their aggressive behavior.
Sure, it’s more of a bar than a restaurant—the same goes for Crazy Buffalo—but when we check in, lots of people are eating. The ground floor is sports-themed with tables overhanging into the street at this intense end of Bui Vien.
There are lots of signs telling you what you can and can’t do, but elsewhere the murals are weathered but on-point. Upstairs is backpacker-oriented, with lounge sofas and seating, foosball tables and darts boards, and walls that have been chalked all over by the bar and restaurant’s transient guests. When we go in, staff are acrobatically cleaning the windows of the top floor. And downstairs, they seem to be enjoying engaging with the sprinkling of customers before the volume and intensity turn up making it impossible after dark.
Vietheritage: “This restaurant needs to be called Viet-horrible restaurant”
When we enter, the staff are setting up for a tour group of 17 people. The right elements are in place: it’s located down an alley off Vo Van Tan; the staff are friendly; they serve traditional Vietnamese food. But the dining room has the ambiance of someone’s badly-lit living room, and the tablecloths look like they’ve already hosted a drunken banquet before the guests have even arrived. The menu features lots of Vietnamese standards and a few more exotic options like the luon xao lan (stir-fried eel in coconut) for VND 185,000 and bo cau tiem thuoc bac (pigeon in sweet herbal chicken soup) for VND 165,000.
Overall, it feels like a restaurant that got lazy relying on a steady influx of tour groups. The staff don’t speak English well, and with competitors like Garlik and Home Finest providing service-driven Vietnamese experiences in elegant surroundings, you can understand why tourists here might wish they were somewhere else.
Cali Broken Rice Restaurant Chain: “Strange night”
Refuting the old line “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is Cali Broken Rice. The overwhelming menu has twenty-one kinds of rice noodles, and twenty-nine kinds of broken rice, with their specialty pork chops coming out “lukewarm and dry as cardboard.” The food photography doesn’t help. Their pumpkin soup, served in the pumpkin, looks like it was used as a washing up bowl.
Despite that, the location of this branch along Nguyen Trai draws a steady stream of tourists and locals. You wouldn’t think expectations would be high for a street food-inspired chain, but 22 people have posted reviews, 13% deciding this restaurant is terrible. As we enter, an old eastern-European couple are leaving. We ask how was the food and they say it was fine and shrug noncommittally.
La Casa Mexican Restaurant: “It’s Mexican like I’m the Pope”
Directly opposite La Casa, like a beaming neon-lit vision of the future, is one of the fun, colorfully branded Nonla Guys’ Asian taco bowl restaurants—another regular in TripAdvisor’s top ten. Back at La Casa, beneath the restaurant’s generic signage visitors are tucking into an eclectic selection of food on the long stretch of outdoor seating.
La Casa seems to be struggling with its identity. The menu offers Heineken buckets with a fruit plate and a shisha (VND 699,000), Western food strong on breakfasts and burgers, Mexican food like taco shells and chimichangas, Italian classics like spaghetti bolognese (for VND 119,000), and “Vietnamese authentic food,” before bravely heading off into a category called “Fusion Field.” Inside, the furniture looks to have been sourced from the closure of different businesses—there are karaoke sofas, and faded black chesterfields you’d find in a hotel lobby all overlooked by a Greek mosaic. The charming, pro-active staff repeatedly ask us to share any positive experiences we have online. Over 250 have, but 15% of them rated their experience as terrible.
What we learned visiting the seven worst restaurants in Saigon according to TripAdvisor
Vietnam has a terrible tourist return rate of 6% compared to local rivals like Thailand, where 55% of annual visitors return within a few years. Despite that, tourist numbers here are up dramatically. Last year, almost 13 million people visited Vietnam, a rise of over 29% on the previous year. Many of those pass through Ho Chi Minh City, where their first experience of the country might be defined by a stay in the backpacker area—an area where experiences can differ widely. Mainstays like Crazy Buffalo keep infuriating guests with opaque billing policies, and erratic service. But a new, better-branded Vietnamese experience (both at the high- and low-ends) is emerging with restaurants like Nonla Guys, Garlik, and Home Finest. But what else did we learn from our tour around TripAdvisor’s basement to find the worst restaurants in Saigon?
Location is important but not essential. Home Finest, the current #1, is thriving in District 3 on busy Dien Bien Phu. It has reached the top in four months gathering almost as many reviews as La Casa has in their six years on the Bui Vien strip. Noir, the dining-in-the-dark restaurant, is well-hidden down an alley off Hai Ba Trung. And “new’ Vietnamese cuisine restaurant, Anan, currently just outside the top ten, is buried in the middle of the chaos of one of the city’s last wet markets. However, location does appear to be helping places like Donkey, which despite being one of the worst restaurants in Saigon, survives because of the foot traffic offered by Bui Vien street.
Branding makes a difference. La Casa and Nonla Guys are at opposite sides of the street and opposite ends of TripAdvisor’s rankings. One, La Casa, is generically branded and eclectically furnished with a diverse menu. The other, Nonla Guys, has a stylish neon signage, and a focused menu of affordable Asian Taco bowls. The Guys have a very clear concept whereas La Casa is trying (and failing) to be everything to everyone.
Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, customers want service-driven experiences. Home Finest have deliberately sourced staff from the Four Seasons, Danang and local icons like Hoa Tuc, all of whom have impeccable English and service skills. Added to that guests are serenaded nightly by a cellist and a guitarist which means no-one is complaining about the VND 55,000 tra da (iced tea).