It was a simple story. The son of the friend’s landlord owned one of those ubiquitous boutique hotels that are springing up around the city. But they had a problem. Their normal Trip Advisor reviewer was off to Europe for the summer and they needed someone to fill his or her shoes.
“What do you mean?” asked the friend, not quite sure of what was entailed here.
Gradually the scenario was explained. The son had been employing this person to write fake reviews. He then bought IP addresses, used someone else to create a fake identity, and from there started posting reviews of his hotel on Trip Advisor. Of course, to ensure that the fake reviewer wasn’t discovered, the cyber traveller would then move on through the online ether to Hoi An, Saigon, Phnom Penh and so on, with the son collaborating through various means with other hotels up and down the country.
The friend at first was quite nonplussed by this. In their opinion, such a faking of online personas and user-generated comments was unethical. But of course, in a place such as Vietnam, it is simply another form of competition. As the son explained, all the other hotels here are doing this, and if he didn’t continue with the reviews, then he would fall way down the ‘best hotels in Hanoi’ list. This would have a negative effect on his business.
At first sight, the friend’s story seems to be true. Go to the hotels section of Trip Advisor for Hanoi, and you’ll see that the Sofitel Metropole Legend, undoubtedly the number one property in the city, only weighs in at number 14. The Intercontinental, The Sheraton, The Melia, The Sofitel Plaza and all the other five stars are way down the pecking order, even though they are well-run, top-end properties. And at the top? All the recently established boutiques.
And yet, go to the Ho Chi Minh City hotels section and the reviews here seem to me much more in line with local thinking. The Park Hyatt weighs in at number one, closely followed by the InterContinental Asiana at number two. The majority of the other five stars are in the top 20, while only a few of the boutique hotels here seem to struggle through. There may well be some review rigging going on here too, but certainly not in the same manner as in Hanoi.
Of course, the friend reluctantly agreed to help out the landlord’s son — at the end of the day they would get paid US$5 per review for five reviews a week. But, as the friend says, “If this was in the west I wouldn’t touch it. But in Vietnam I guess things just work differently”.