Culinary Innovation Meets Social Change: Germ Doornbos’ Journey of the Senses Unveiled

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Lauren Tracy
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Last Updated: December 14, 2023

In the bustling heart of Saigon’s downtown, hidden within an alleyway we call a “hem,” lies a transformative and extraordinary experience. It began with Noir – Dining in the Dark restaurant and has evolved into a collection of innovative, luxurious, and mind-opening adventures. But you would never guess that running the show is a group of incredible individuals from the deaf, blind, visually, and aurally impaired community in Vietnam. A sanctuary of empowerment, inclusion, flowers, relaxation, creativity, and gastronomical wonder awaits. This enlightening exploration reveals the story behind “Journey of the Senses” and the immersive experiences at its heart. Read on to discover three delicious restaurants, a flower shop, and a spa with a social cause at its core, and meet the visionary behind it all: Germ Doornbos.

From Passion To Purpose

Germ’s calling started at a young age while he navigated through part-time gigs at restaurants, bars, hotels, and theaters. This journey eventually led him to earn a degree in International Hospitality Management from Hotelschool The Hague. But that was just the beginning. Amid his studies, Germ embarked on two exciting 5-star internships, one in the heart of Rome, Italy, and the other in vibrant Hanoi, Vietnam. After completing his training, he was quickly whisked away to work in the F&B industry in Vietnam, no doubt due to his meticulous attention to detail, down-to-earth charm, style, brilliance, and creativity.

Germ Doonbos. Journey of the Senses Co-Founder
Germ Doornbos – Journey of the Senses Co-Founder

From 5-Star Excellence To Social Empowerment

Reflecting on his path, Germ shares, “The social cause always intrigued me. When I was ready to open my own business, a restaurant was a logical step, but with a social aspect.” Collaborating with his partner, they embraced the concept of dining in the dark—an unexplored notion in Vietnam. The idea was more than a novelty; it was about creating social change.

Seeing the limited opportunities for people with sensory disabilities in Vietnam, especially in hospitality, I thought it would be amazing to let these talented individuals, regardless if they are blind or deaf, have a chance. Often, these individuals are highly motivated!

Germ recalls.

This led to Journey of the Senses.

In a country where limited job opportunities burden individuals with disabilities, Germ’s mission resonates deeply. “The unemployment rate for the blind and visually impaired in Vietnam is about 94% and 65-70% for the deaf and hearing impaired. This is due to low awareness, high social stigma, and limited government support,” he explains. Germ’s innovation redefines possibilities with dignity. “Placing people with disabilities at the frontline is key,” he asserts. This philosophy reshapes perspectives, empowering staff and guests at Journey of the Senses. Through his visionary approach, Germ Doornbos’ journey advocates not just fine dining but transformation – where culinary innovation meets social change.

Discover Noir: Vietnam’s Dining in the Dark Restaurant

Germ Doornbos stumbled upon the charming location by a stroke of luck, following the advice of local coffee vendors and security guards to discover this hidden French colonial villa. The serene place set the stage for a lavish dining experience. Germ’s first priority is making guests feel at ease. Guests are welcomed into a beautiful sitting room with a welcome cocktail, a blindfolded game, and a personalized pre-meal briefing before venturing into the pitch-dark dining area. He explains, “It can be rather unnatural at first… We are very dependent on sight, which we take for granted.

The dining in the dark experience is unique because it heightens focus on the senses beyond sight. A distraction-free dining experience that allows diners to fully engage in food conversation and appreciate their feelings in a new way. The guides inspire confidence by explaining the table settings and course layout. Blind and visually impaired staff at Noir were trained in service skills, language, hospitality, and role-playing over almost three months. The blind team members assist in training and explaining tasks. On-the-job training and guidance from the blind team have become central as Noir continues to operate.

noir
Vietnam Is Awesome meets Noir Dining.

The menu at Noir is a well-guarded secret, revealed only when guests experience it. A refined “gastronomic journey” through familiar yet artfully combined ingredients. Germ explains that dining in the dark highlights the often overlooked elements of food, stating, “You really discover you eat with your eyes.” In the dark, the focus shifts from visual presentation to the interplay of taste, smell, and texture.

noir
The dining in the dark experience is unique because it heightens focus on the senses beyond sight.

Noir restaurant ultimately builds bridges between the blind community, allowing guests to experience life without sight. Germ’s ultimate goal is to use this unique platform to create jobs for people with disabilities while promoting independence and reducing societal stigma.

And then there was light: The Inspiring Story of Blanc Restaurant.

noir
Guests communicate with Blanc’s staff through hand signals.

Blanc, founded in 2017, embodies a remarkable blend of gastronomy and empowerment. A unique dining experience that empowers the deaf community. Through “Dine in Signs” sign language communication, guests enjoy delicious food while fostering inclusivity and awareness.

This unique experience began with an unwavering belief in what individuals with disabilities could achieve. Germ shares, “People often think about what a disabled person cannot do instead of what they still can do. We just see opportunities here and let our guests speak the language of the deaf themselves.

Blanc’s restaurant offers a unique dining experience where guests can communicate with deaf and hearing-impaired staff using sign language while enjoying fusion cuisine. “There is a nice interaction between the guests and the staff. Plenty of smiles on both sides,” Germ adds. This concept fosters awareness and challenges misconceptions about sign language diversity. Germ passionately explains, “Sign languages are unique, based on the spoken language, alphabet, and cultural aspects, resulting in unique and very different signs.

Blanc’s success isn’t just about innovation; it’s a testament to the dedication and enthusiasm of the deaf team members. The training was meticulous and interactive, designed to empower these individuals. Germ reflects, “Their lack of experience is very much compensated by their enthusiasm and willingness to learn.” As Blanc’s doors opened, the passion of the deaf team breathed life into the concept.

Germ’s aspiration is profound, “We do hope that our guests understand that it is possible to have deaf and hearing impaired people in a work situation. We hope that people will focus more on what a disabled person still can do instead of what they can’t.” Travelers seeking a unique and transformative dining experience must look only as much as Blanc Restaurant.

A Tapestry of Transformation: Beyond Dining

Germ Doornbos’ Journey of empowerment extends beyond the culinary realm. Alongside Noir and Blanc Restaurants, his visionary enterprise, Journey of the Senses, weaves a tapestry of change through La Hao flower shop, Du Du Xanh vegetarian restaurant, and Noir Spa.

La Hoa: Where Flowers Speak

La Hoa, the radiant flower shop under Journey of the Senses, tells a tale of creativity and connection. Triggered by requests for floral decorations and bouquets in their restaurants, the idea took root. “Our colleague Quynh Anh and also my business partner Tu have always been quite interested in flower arranging,” Germ shares.

With a team of deaf and hearing-impaired florists, La Hoa crafts personalized arrangements catering to budgets, preferences, and styles. Beyond blossoms, they pioneer a unique way of communication. “Our team will make video clips in sign language with the personal message or greeting from the sender that can be scanned by QR code by the receiver,” Germ reveals.

Du Du Xanh: A Veggie Lovers Dream

Step into Tiem Chay Du Du Xanh (Green Papaya Vegetarian Restaurant), the latest delicious addition within Journey of the Senses Alley. Established in 2020, it offers a divine vegetarian and vegan menu and a refreshingly different ambiance from other Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Bathed in natural light and adorned with greenery, it has a sense of luxury, casually emanating from the creative design, jazz playlist humming in the background, and friendly service. Housed in a French colonial villa, Du Du Xanh radiates a fusion of elegance and simplicity with its Indochine-inspired decor in shades of green and white. Beyond the menu’s carefully crafted vegetarian dishes, the restaurant opens to all palates, offering an inviting space where comfort and flavors entwine. Fresh, delicious, healthy, and sustainable, for a serene lunchtime getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city with a refreshing icy juice at hand or a snazzy healthy dinner with a tasty glass of wine at hand, Du Du Xanh is certainly one of the top Vegetarian Restaurants in Saigon.

Noir Spa: Elevating Sensory Elegance

As you enter, the subtle hues of greens and browns set a serene tone, resonating with the gentle spirit of Indochine. Art and collected antiques decorate the space, and as you head upstairs, big wooden tubs overlook the city, inviting you to come to enjoy a soak in a traditional Red Dao herbal bath before a variety of massages, including soothing foot and body treatments, indulgent hot stone and aroma massages, and the unique experience of embracing the enveloping darkness during your session. The therapists, blind or visually impaired, radiate professionalism, skill, and welcoming smiles, embodying the spa’s commitment to purposeful design, shared success, and the transformation of employment opportunities within the blind community.

A Final Note: The Power of Possibility

Journey of the Senses challenges society’s norms, empowering visually and audibly handicapped individuals to work in a high-end, luxurious, creative venture. A place where any human being could feel proud to work. Therefore, considering the blind and deaf community as perfectly abled as they are. Each room is beautifully decorated with impressive artwork, creative design, and quality ingredients. Germ Doornbos brings 5-star service into the Social Entreprise Realm, and it’s definitely an alleyway worth exploring in Saigon! As you explore the marvels of these establishments, you become a part of this story – a story of empowerment, inclusion, and the boundless possibilities of the human spirit.

du du xanh
Du Du Xanh
Crafted with care by the owner, this space beckons you to savor vegetarian cuisine in a light-filled, nostalgic ambiance. Learn more!
blanc
Blanc. Restaurant
Amidst the bustling streets of Saigon, Blanc Restaurant stands as a beacon of uniqueness and inclusivity. Learn more!
noir dining in the black
Noir
Noir isn’t just a restaurant; it’s an invitation to explore the art of dining from a new perspective. Learn more!
Noir. Spa
Noir. Spa
Imagine Noir. Spa as an urban oasis, designed to cocoon your senses in relaxation. Learn more!
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Lauren Tracy
Head of Content & Communications - Vietnam Is Awesome
Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Lauren has been living in Vietnam for the past 8 years. Her passion for the travel industry and wealth of experience has led her to become the Head of PR & Communications at Vietnam Is Awesome.