|Noir - Dining in the Dark|
More than 6 months ago, we were asked if we (as in Hub and The Teenager) would like to take part in a friendly golf tournament in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to be held just before the New Year. That was a couple of months after our trip to Hanoi (during CNY), so we were obviously quite destined for Vietnam in 2014.
My only problem with visiting Vietnam is the cost of the visas. I do not need one with my Singapore passport, but it's 440 rmb for a single entry for the Hub and the kids. Considering that each trip there lasted between 4 and 8 days, I found paying for 2 rounds of visas in the same year a little painful.
Anyway, we booked 2 rooms at the 5-star Sofitel Saigon Plaza with its famous rooftop pool and once again, it wasn't really my idea as I usually prefer boutique hotels. But the organiser of the above-mentioned golf tournament pre-paid for his rooms and informed us after, that we were expected to do the same so that we could all be together. In other words, I didn't really have a choice.
Fortunately, apart from 3 first nights of lights that refused to be switched off (my mother would tell you the room was haunted), the hotel was comfortable and well-situated, so I had no reason to complain about it. Plus, I found out that Vietnam had an interesting rule about prostitution in such hotels: a member of our group (a divorcee) came back one evening with a Vietnamese girl of questionable reputation and was discovered by the hotel manager himself who informed him that he would only be allowed to bring her in if she happened to be a guest of the hotel (which would involve paying for another room on the spot in her name). Guy, I heard, is like a sailor with certain habits at every port of call; needless to say, with all his ECAs he ended up last in the golf tournament.
Once again, I digress. I was out to blog about a restaurant we dined in in HCMC (among many others, but that will have to wait) named Noir - Dining in the Dark. We like to go local at different levels when we travel and while I could possibly eat Pho Bo Tai every day, I was also keen to try something new and dining in the dark was something I had yet to try at that time. It's not at all unique to Vietnam, but I had not been to one anywhere before.
I had expected the kids to reject the idea when I first suggested it; they were reticent, but were at the same time curious enough to want to give it a try. Our greatest problem probably is the fact that we are very picky eaters and you do not know what you are going to eat when you dine at Noir. Then, out of politeness, I asked our group of friends if they would like to join us and they all said pourquoi pas?
We arrived in a renovated old house with pretty floor tiles one evening at 8pm. With those French people's habit of having aperitif before dinner, we had to dine late every evening when we were in HCMC, not to forget eat and drink way too much. I would have preferred to eat at 7pm latest, but once again I wasn't asked my opinion.
|One of the owners G coming out of the bar|
We were a group of 10. You were served cocktails (not very tasty) and asked to choose between a western and asian menu (with no idea what's going to be in it exactly). Then you had to blindfold yourself and attempt a simple game where you return to your childhood and have to match wooden objects according to their shapes and place them on a tray (see picture of the group next to us doing just that). During the meal, the food would be served in 5 containers set on a tray, this being a foretaste of what you would need to do once you are in the totally dark dining room.
Totally dark. It seemed that a few members of my entourage had only just realised that we were going to eat in total darkness. It wouldn't be diplomatic on my part to suggest that there was a bit of panique à bord, but one or two of them started to act really weird. He's one of those tall, commanding, very disciplined (military background), successful sort; he called one of the restaurant owners T over and asked if T could guarantee that he would not dirty his clothes during the meal...(!)
|Our neighbours playing the pre-dinner game|
T was taken back, I guess, and didn't give a tactful enough answer and we could almost see a volcano about to erupt in front of us. Now friend said he didn't want to dine there because of T's bad attitude! Fortunately, friend's usually quiet wife decided for once that she would take things into her hands and just dragged him out of the restaurant. So we ended up 8 to dine.
You have to surrender all of your watches and mobile phones before the meal so that nothing that could produce light would be introduced into the dining room. Second friend, as we would discover later on, didn't surrender his watch and I would spend the whole evening being irritated by this light moving around opposite me. What's with these macho, strong, successful types and their weird reaction to being in total darkness? Are they afraid of not being in control?
The dining room was on the first floor and we were greeted at its entrance by 2 visually-impaired waiters. Our waiter was called Vinh and he spoke beautifully-accented and clear English and I couldn't help thinking that he must have very good hearing to have picked up such a crisp accent.
Vinh guided us to our side of the table and placed us in front of our chairs. The room was totally dark except for 4 red dots at four corners of the room. People tend to talk loudly in the dark for some reason so we could hear the other diners giggling or talking more loudly than usual as we tried to settle in.
It wasn't that difficult trying to take stock of one's space because the table setting was kept simple and we each had a glass, a fork and a spoon. I could feel both edges of my table so I knew it wasn't big and that if I kept feeling my way inwards from the sides I'll be able to find my cutlery etc. Personally, I felt quite liberated at the initial loss of my sight; I felt light, at one with my universe.
When you cannot see, it's important to listen more and I wished my fellow diners could be calmer. Unfortunately, one was cold and kept screaming for the aircon to be switched off, another had a watch shining through the meal and Baby Girl played the zombie and refused to use her hands to find anything or eat anything (so I ate up her entire western dinner on top of my asian one!). The Teenager (actually since October last year he's an adult, so we will call him The Young Adult after these words) was surprisingly calm and compliant, eating his dinner quietly and joining in the talk with a few jokes here and there, while Baby Boy talked too loudly, but managed to try a bit of the food in front of him after Vinh assured him that it wasn't fish. Hub started to criticise the food, do you think it's gourmet? Don't you think it's too cold? Sight is really very important in food appreciation...
Sight is indeed very important in food appreciation, which is why Japanese food is very much appreciated and admired. Taste probably starts with our eyes, followed by smell (which somehow wasn't pronounced during the meal), by the actual tasting and in this case, if I may say so, by touch; because I stopped trying to use my cutlery, preferring to feel my food before I ate it and I found that it worked quite well.
One fear I had though was the possibility of everyone around me crashing their glasses and spilling their drinks on me. I had no idea why they were always loudly trying to find their glasses when the glass wasn't normally going to move elsewhere if you've put it back on your right above the cutlery. My lemongrass soda was delicious, by the way.
|The reception hall|
At the end of our dinner, Vinh guided us out of the dining room, warning us to keep our eyes on the ground so as not to be disoriented when we see light again. I must say that at this point, I was happy to leave the darkness as it was starting to be very tiring keeping the eyes open in the dark, in fact, it would be advisable to shut them from time to time in order to rest them.
I was also feeling sad, thinking that while we would be able to welcome light into our lives again, Vinh and his colleagues would remain in the dark.
As I had suspected, our chairs were acrylic (Philippe Starck to be exact) and our tables square and not very big. The 8 of us were sitting in 2 rows of 4 facing each other. G showed us what our meal looked like on an iPad, and we probably only guessed half of what we ate right. Everyone agreed that it was an experience to try at least once in our lives, though probably not too often as we do prefer to be able to see what we are eating. Finally, I wouldn't advise eating in the dark for a large group. With no other distractions around, it's a good opportunity to go all philosophical on your partner or kids, or at least become a better listener than usual. It was trying trying to get everyone to speak in turns or figuring out who said what from where etc.