Sorry Tripadvisor

After weeks in Vietnam, talking too much with other tourists, I jumped at the invitation to join a local for dinner. I was the only identifiably foreign face in the crowd gathered around hot pots in each table, so was delighted even before the first spring onion hit the oil. No English anywhere, but when she told me the restaurant’s name, it tickled my memory.

“There is one downtown too. It is Tripadvisor’s #1 place to eat in Hanoi.” I remembered seeing a long line out a front door. She gave an embarrassed smile. “But…no Vietnamese eats there. They take all the bad food we won’t eat and sell it to tourists.” I immediately had two thoughts: that makes sense, and don’t use Tripadvisor. Why would I trust other tourists to tell me what’s good? That site assumes expertise from the people least likely to have it. Subsequent years have only added to why I find the site as useful as a swimming pool in space.

I remember the owner of a truly terrible hotel who offered $5 off for a glowing review, but spent the afternoons typing up his own, interspersing fake bad reviews of his competitors. The more dishonest the behavior, the greater the reward. (Photos from my most recent trip: Thailand, not Vietnam, which was seven years ago)

We visited an incredible elephant sanctuary, but not the one atop all the lists. Thai contacts told us the well-reviewed one is actually run by a mafia, and has sent death threats to people who considered saying so online.

Consider the restaurant’s much lamented downward arc. Starts great, but once it’s “discovered” the crowds exhaust the staff, kill the need to do well, and drive away the more discerning clientele. What sends bigger crowds than Trip Advisor? Who then review it again, creating a feedback loop ensuring maximum crowding and minimal variety.

My brother and I stumbled on this market, which had everything from fresh lemongrass to beef tongues, no reviews, no tourists, abundant authenticity

But to be fair, going somewhere new can be overwhelming, and no one likes leaving a place only to hear about something they missed. So the site has its uses. It’s a handy crutch to get you going. And here are two more reasons to abandon that crutch as soon as possible.

Outsourcing choices to the mob deprives the traveler of the search for their own experience, and the rewards of finding something for yourself, whether it’s a temple, trattoria, or town.

But the thing that bugs me the most is that crowdsourcing opinions assumes everyone is the same. Every ingredient at that Vietnamese restaurant was fresh, but I learned that fish stomachs are too chewy for me. I’d bet most reviewers would dock a star for that, but travelers like me appreciate the chance to expand our experience and understanding, whether we care for something or not. And besides, fish stomachs were on the menu because some people love them. A 1-in-5 star rating leaves no space for that kind of nuance or individualism, and in order to court the top rating, restaurants homogenize. Fish stomachs were not on the menu downtown, making that iteration less diverse, less of an opportunity, and in the end: less Vietnamese.

And now the confession. I benefit from Tripadvisor’s homogenization of traveler behavior, since it allows me to avoid large numbers of googling tourists and directs the hustling touts to those mass markets instead of the streets where I want to walk. And to be brutally honest, many of the people following the internet’s Top 10 do not have the curiosity or flexibility I seek in my travel community. The problem is that a lot of the folks following those lists ARE the ones I want at my table. And that’s what bugs me. I want them to have better, more personal experiences, and ideally I want them to have them with me!

So if you are content with the crowd’s top recommendation, go for it. Instagram the hell out of that well known menu. No judgment. Or use that google search as a starting point and try to leave it when you can. But if you’re curious to walk the path less traveled, willing to take a chance, and ready for the rewards of finding something really new, close that tab (maybe open this one instead) and I’ll see you out there. And I promise: fish stomachs only upon request.

This temple is 5 min from another that makes all the lists, and is crowded enough to prove it. This one does not, was gorgeous, and had no other visitors.