Vũ Anh Tú and Germ Doornbos, Founders of Noir, have created a ‘dining in the dark’ restaurant in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, allowing their customers to experience food in a different way like never before.
What would you do if you suddenly lost your ability to see? How would you interact with the world differently? That is the reality of approximately 4000 visually impaired people in Ho Chi Minh City – people whose job and life opportunities are severely curtailed in a city yet to create real employment prospects for them. Two restaurateurs are trying to change that. For Vũ Anh Tú and Germ Doornbos, the pair behind ‘dining in the dark’ concept Noir which employs only visually impaired staff, and its younger sister restaurant Blanc that provides job opportunities for the hearing impaired, changing the landscape requires a clear demonstration that it’s possible. With plans afoot for a flower shop, massage parlour and vegetarian restaurant, all run along the same lines, they’re determined to help people turn their disabilities into assets in a city that sorely needs it. “The unemployment rate for blind and visually impaired in Vietnam is at a staggering rate of about 94%. We are now employing 11 blind and visually impaired people. It’s a small number, but it’s a start,” they say.
The restaurant owners believe the issues facing those with disabilities in Saigon run deep and start at the top. “The rate of unemployment is due to a combination of the lack of awareness for the blind community, high social stigma, and also limited to no government support. It is not that the blind cannot work; it is that society and the government do not provide job opportunities for them.” With 38 years of hospitality experience between them, the pair are adamant that it isn’t any harder to train visually impaired employees. It just takes a different approach. “Training blind people is not much more difficult than training sighted people. It is just much more verbal and more personal since you have to let them touch and feel more. Certain tasks, like pouring a glass of wine, take more one-on-one training. You cannot just stand in front of the group and show more people at the same time.”
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Since opening its doors in 2014, guests who dine at Noir have come to expect great service and food. Diners can choose from three mystery menus (Menu from the East, Menu from the West and Vegetarian Menu) as well as a whole host of mystery wines to go with their meal. From the moment they walk in, they’re greeted by friendly waitstaff and eased into the darkness with a complimentary drink and some games to heighten the senses before they sit down in the pitch black to begin their meal. It’s an experience conducted in the hope that dining under the cloak of darkness will help open people’s eyes to something new. “People tend to experience food with their eyes, rather than their palate. It happens quite frequently that people claim not to like ingredients in the light, but, once eating them unaware in the dark, they start liking them very much,” the owners report.
At the time of writing, Noir has managed to maintain an overall 5-star rating in Tripadvisor with over 1913 reviews and rank 16th out of 3632 restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Tú and Germ want all of us to give disabled people a chance to prove that just because they are different, it doesn’t mean they are useless. Creating jobs for them is beneficial to them and for the wider society: “Creating jobs for the blind and visually impaired earns them a living. That relieves pressure from their families, who had to take care of them before. Working creates a sense of pride, ownership, responsibility and a higher level of self-esteem.”