Foods at Vietnam airports leave a bad taste

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A food court at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam has pledged to fix the problem of low quality food services at airports nationwide. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

When Nguyen Ngoc Tuyen's flight from Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang was delayed, he decided to get something to eat.

"I had chicken and rice. They served just a small bowl of rice and small piece of chicken and charged VND82,000 (US$4). It was unbelievable."

Tuyen said the quality of food was worse than cheap eateries that sell such meals for VND15,000-20,000.

The mediocre but expensive food stalls and restaurants at airports in the country have attracted complaints for years, but nothing has been done.

A recent announcement that authorities will crackdown on such establishment has failed to impress.

Fredrickson, manager of a travel agency in HCMC, was quoted by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying that he had studied tours to central region in June and found that the hamburger at Cam Ranh Airport in the south central province of Khanh Hoa, home to the coastal resort town of Nha Trang, was the worst he has ever had.

It cost him a whopping nine dollars.

His Vietnamese colleague ordered a bowl of instant noodles and an egg for VND60,000, and it came half cooked.

Such prices match those at European airports, but the food quality is too bad and does not match what he knows of Vietnamese food, Fredrickson told Tuoi Tre.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) recently issued a directive telling service providers at airports nationwide to amend prices to match their quality.

Airport authorities have to inspect and have service providers register with them the prices of for services they supply and take strict measures against violators, the directive said.

Lai Xuan Thanh, CAAV's deputy director, said the move was part of a campaign to monitor prices of services at airports following many complaints from passengers.

"Many passengers, including foreigners, have complained to the Ministry of Transport and Minister Dinh La Thang about food services at airports," Thanh was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying.

"They complained about high prices for bad meals and attitude at all airports," he said.

He said there are between 3-5 companies selling food and commodities like souvenirs at each airport but the small number still creates a monopolistic situation.

Both the major food caterer at the airport and aviation authorities have said the crackdown will be serious and deliver results.

A report by news website VnExpress said Thursday that prices at many food stalls in the Tan Son Nhat airport have fallen slightly, apparently in response to the "crackdown."

But this is not likely to satisfy the public looking for significant improvements in food quality, service and reasonable pricing, insiders say. 

An American expat, who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years and wanted to be identified only as Tom, said a more important issue is Vietnam's tendency toward "law enforcement by crackdown."

"Crackdowns are useless if the authorities are looking for long term effects," he told Vietweek.

"By now, the population realizes that crackdowns are short lived, taking place within fixed time periods. When the crackdown is over, things go back to "˜normal'."

George Adam, general manager at Exotissimo Travel Vietnam, said an airport operator should offer a variety of food outlets in order to offer variety to airport customers.

"Competition between food outlets normally drives the quality and competitive pricing.

A monopoly is never good for the consumer," Adam told Vietweek.

"Without competition a supplier can offer average items at high prices because the consumer has no choice. Fixing the price of goods and controlling them are not the solution," he said.

David Watson, general director of Industry Travel Asia, said he is a frequent traveler and does not patronize food stalls at Vietnamese airports because of the poor quality and pricing.

"Vietnam already has a very low return rate of visitors compared to its Asian neighbors," he said.

"The final insult for many and indeed their last impression of Vietnam is the experience at the airport as they leave the country. Many of them have traveled and eaten very good quality, low-cost and delicious food around Vietnam."

Adam, however, was not too bothered about the food quality and prices at Vietnamese airports.

He said overpriced items is never good anywhere, but a tourist can choose by simply not buying and walking away.

"If nobody buys them, the $9 hamburger shop [at Cam Ranh Airport] will have to close or adjust their product and/or pricing. There are bad and overpriced restaurants everywhere in the world, and this just happens to be one of them."

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