The Noir Alley – A Social Enterprise Hub With A Hunger To Grow
An old District 1 ward, directly north of the city center, Da Kao is home to most of Saigon’s consulates and a number of elegant buildings dating from the French-colonial period. Da Kao’s historic streets also contain a bewilderingly high concentration of great restaurants and bars.
Back in 2013, when Da Kao was better known for its traditional eateries than envelope-pushing concepts, two hospitality professionals, Vũ Anh Tú and Germ Doornbos, were scouting around the ward’s jumble of alleyways in search of a suitable location for Vietnam’s first dining in the dark restaurant.
“We found this gorgeous colonial villa in a hem off Hai Ba Trung that was just the right fit for our concept,” recounts Germ as he shows Vietcetera around the stunning building filled with contemporary Vietnamese art, traditional lacquer paintings and eclectic furniture. “The idea for a social enterprise that would put Vietnam’s blind and visually-impaired employees at the center of a dining experience was there from the very beginning. All we needed was the right venue and a bit of time to fine-tune the concept.”
A lot has changed since Noir. Dining in the Dark opened in October 2014. The menu has evolved to include more bold textures and flavors, satellite businesses were launched and have flourished, and recognition came in many forms: from raving TripAdvisor reviews to international social enterprise awards. What hasn’t changed is the founders’ focus on social causes.
Today, the Noir Alley is a thriving hub of socially responsible businesses under the Journey of the Senses umbrella: the original Noir. Dining in the Dark; sister restaurant Blanc employing deaf and hearing-impaired service team; Là Hoa. Flowers Speak flower shop run by hearing-impaired florists, and the newcomers Noir Spa and Cà Phê in the Dark.
The journey of the senses
The moment you turn off Hai Ba Trung and into the sun-dappled hem, a sense of calm envelopes you. And just like that, the Noir Alley’s Journey of the Senses begins. For the next few hours you become part of a community that takes everything you knew about the senses and turns that preconceived notion on its head.
“In 2019 we created Journey of the Senses, a group of premium restaurants and creative services that employ people with disabilities in guest-facing roles,” explains Tú. “Through creating jobs and providing training, we want to show that our team members have the ability to deliver impeccable service in an industry that is usually off limits to them.”
Where Vietnam’s disabled find gainful employment, guests push themselves (and are helped along by Noir’s team) to step outside of their comfort zone and see the world through the eyes of the other. “The experience is quite mind-altering,” says Germ, who has seen his fair share of skeptical guests emerge from the dark as converts and with a fresh perspective. “After all, we eat with our eyes and when the sense of sight is removed, it’s quite a shock to the system.”
Germ explains that it was important not to come off as gimmicky. “Although Noir is a novel concept and a first of its kind in Asia [world’s first opened in Zurich, Switzerland in 1999], we didn’t want that novelty to take away from the quality of food and service.” Tú and Germ spent months training the original Noir service team in the finer points of hospitality (both founders have over a decade of experience in the field). Today, all training is conducted by the team: old hands showing newcomers the ropes.
Senses, activated. Stress, be gone
When in 2019 Noir Spa opened in the alley, wellness-related disciplines were added to the curriculum. But the focus on hospitality remained. Housed in a lovingly restored colonial villa, the spa is an oasis of calm – hushed and utterly relaxing.
Germ is our guide, once again, and we are whisked past an inviting greenhouse-like reception area, a foot massage parlor and a relaxation lounge where refreshments are served post-treatment. Up the spiral staircase lie private massage rooms and oversized bathtubs for herbal baths tucked behind bamboo screens.
“At Noir Spa guests can experience massage in the dark – a first in Asia,” explains Germ. “The spa employs a team of blind and visually-impaired massage therapists whose highly sensitive fingers will knead out even the most stubborn knots.”
Here, everything is designed to activate your senses of touch, smell and sound. The intoxicating aroma of the herbal bath infused with 120 kinds of leaves, bark and wood from Vietnam’s Sapa region (Noir Spa works with SapaNapro, a social enterprise run by the Red Dao minority, who supply herbal bath essences). The sound of the raindrops on the pomelo tree enjoying afternoon showers on the treatment room balcony. The gentle touch of your spa therapist.
Shining the light on social issues
How do you put someone who has never dined in the dark at ease? Tú and Germ deploy a number of tried-and-tested techniques to help guests relax: from mood-lightening pre-dinner games to letting guests “peek” behind the blackout curtain by asking as many questions as they like. “But ultimately”, admits Germ, “it’s about building trust between the guest and the guide. You can’t ask someone to trust you unless they have complete confidence in your professionalism.”
Patrons get to choose from “mystery menus” that describe the type of cuisine but don’t name the dishes. In a pitch-black dining room, without the distraction of mobile devices, your other senses emerge to interpret the world from another perspective. Here, your visually-impaired guide, someone who outside these four walls is at a disadvantage, becomes your eyes.
To make the experience more accessible to the Vietnamese customers, the team has recently launched Noir. Cà Phê in the Dark, a coffee shop located at the entrance of Noir restaurant. With traditional coffee and tea served in the dark, the experience is a good entry point for anyone who is happy to dip their toes into the concept but not ready to commit to a multi-course dinner just yet. Tú believes that Noir. Cà Phê in the Dark will resonate with young Vietnamese customers. “Gen Zers are more progressive. They care about social causes and want to make a difference. We wanted to create something affordable for them, and also something educational.”
“In developing nations like Vietnam, there is very little awareness of the daily lives of the blind and deaf communities. It’s almost like two parallel worlds that never have the opportunity to cross,” Germ points out. “At Noir, where the visually-impaired members of society are in charge, we ask the guests to place their trust in the hands of the blind. Here, they are the ones who guide us in the dark, and they excel at it!”
This excellence is achieved through rigorous training. None of the blind team members had any job experience. In Vietnam the unemployment rate for blind and visually-impaired people is around 94%. In Saigon, out of 4,000 blind and visually-impaired people, Germ and Tú employ 11. “It’s a small number,” admits Germ, “but it’s a start.”
“We are creating job opportunities and it takes away a bit of pressure from their families, since now they are able to support themselves and become independent. And because the entire concept is designed around them, because they are in charge, our team members feel empowered. We strongly believe that their lack of experience is more than compensated by their enthusiasm and willingness to learn.”
Disadvantages turned into an advantage
The second floor of the villa is occupied by Blanc restaurant that employs deaf and hearing-impaired people. Here, in brightly lit rooms, guests are perusing menus that double as pictogram-heavy silent language guides. Some guests attain fluency and have spirited conversions with the staff in local dialect (Vietnam does not have a national sign language; Saigon, Hanoi and Hai Phong have their own sign languages). Others peak at “thank you”. Thankfully, you don’t need to be fluent to enjoy your time at Blanc.
Launched in the summer of 2017, Blanc is virtually indistinguishable from any high-end restaurant. Food is delectable, decor tasteful and the service top-notch. The only difference is that your waiter and sommelier will be introducing themselves, taking your order and checking in with you throughout the meal in a language you don’t understand. A bit like dining in a foreign country then.
Germ explains that in Vietnam, many fashion and shoe factories hire deaf people. So do make-up studios and hair salons. But jobs in hospitality and the restaurant sector were not on the menu. Blanc has changed that.
When Là Hoa. Flowers Speak flower shop opened in Noir Alley in 2019, it offered another career path for Saigon’s disabled community. Employing deaf and hearing-impaired florists, it pioneered the idea of replacing traditional greeting cards with short video messages in sign language that the recipient can unlock by scanning a QR code.
Watch this space
Having their hands full running two restaurants, a catering business, a coffee shop, a flower shop and a spa, hasn’t stopped Germ and Tú from scanning the horizon for new opportunities. “We’ve noticed an almost fourfold increase in the demand for our vegetarian menu,” says Germ. “That got us thinking that perhaps a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant using locally-grown, organic produce and catering to local tastes could be next. Something more mainstream and accessible.”
Then there is the idea to launch Vietnam’s first Dialogue in the Dark experience – an awareness-raising exhibition. In Dialogue in the Dark, blind guides lead visitors in small groups through different settings in absolute darkness. While guests are enjoying a walk in the park or a boat ride (all without leaving specially designed darkened rooms) a reversal of roles is created where sighted become blind and blind become sighted.
While not all of Germ’s and Tú’s ideas will see the light of day, the duo’s hunger to build a more just and sustainable world means that it’s only a matter of time before the Journey of the Senses sprouts new socially responsible businesses. Whether the Noir Alley ends up welcoming a new vegetarian restaurant or a concept that is yet to take shape, it will be a concept that brings us together – through food, shared experiences or through raising awareness.