As the ‘dining in the dark’ concept has become more popular, we set out to find out what would happen if we combined that with another always-trending topic — expat dating. Cupid played by Jon Aspin. Photos by Nick Ross.
It’s going to be low-key mate, really light-hearted, no pressure at all,” I said. “You’ll meet some great girls, you’ll have a few drinks — you’ll love it.”
Two days later, and Lee is sweating under the glare of professional flare lights, I’m interviewing him on-camera and my editor is probing his eyelids with a Canon-480 zoom. Lee’s still smiling, but my sales pitch does seem to have gone a little left of true. Welcome to Word’s blind speed date.
Anyone who’s ever been on a date knows that this is exactly the kind of scrutiny you can do without. Going out in public with someone you barely know can be bad enough. Doing it in front of a magazine crew for the general public’s consumption? Are you crazy?
Of course this wasn’t an ordinary date we were inviting people on. Inspired by the popularity of the pitch-black nights out offered by ‘dining in the dark’ restaurants — and an idea supplied by two friends of the magazine — for this issue we decided to play with the rules a little. The formula? Four girls, four guys, seven minutes and a mission. Throw blindfolds and a non-dark restaurant into the mix for photography’s sake, and these singles would be relying on more than simple good looks and subtle body language to impress the opposite sex.
Looking for Love
Recruited from various ‘social networks’, my first signing was our youngest dater, 24-year-old “all-American” freelance writer and Word contributor Rachel. Next came English teacher Henrike, 28, from Amsterdam, followed by financial services product manager Dannie, 31, a recent arrival from the “weird date” capital of LA. Rounding out my intercontinental girl quartet was ‘wildcard’ entry Anniken, 27, an Estonian filmmaker and teacher here — yes, the one with the purple hair.
On the boys’ side, always on board were Lee, a 31-year-old gym owner and boxing instructor from Bristol, England, wearing possibly the best shirt in Saigon, as well as nice guy Solomon from Hawaii, 35, and a former US Marine. Following their lead were kite-surfing singer-songwriter Les, 29, from Melbourne, and San Francisco-native Calvin, a 37-year-old talent manager about town and one of the funniest cats you’ll meet.
It’s a good-looking group in anyone’s language, and a fair representation of what’s on offer for single Saigonites. I was right to feel happy with my work as cupid.
Of course all of our participants had some nerves — these were real people in a real setting — but in the pre-date interviews a theme became clear. No-one had any expectations. “None at all,” said Solomon. “I just came here because I thought it sounded like a pretty cool idea; meet some new people, have a couple drinks, it should be a good time.” Right on.
Anniken was a little more circumspect, admitting that she’d just been out on what she called an ‘amazing’ date the night before, and was having a little trouble clearing her mind for this one. “I don’t know what to say, it’s weird. I have to go brush my hair, he’s about to take my portrait.”
Keeping the boys and girls apart proved a fun game in itself. Arriving earlier than the girls, and having done their best on-camera work already, the boys were dispatched from dating ground zero — Lu Bu in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 — to the nearest watering hole. Here they imbibed some Dutch courage while the ladies did their thing. On collecting the men I then led them on what I’m claiming as Saigon’s first ‘blindfolded speed-date elephant walk’ back to the restaurant.
The Mission is a Man
After this spectacle, table-by-table introductions were made and these eight fearless singletons were let loose on each other — for seven minutes each. Fearing awkward silences, I installed a ‘secret mission’. Les had the chance to make his dates say “fish sauce” as many times as possible, while Henrike was tasked with finding out the strangest place anyone had ever spent the night. Turns out the inside of a tractor tyre is a pretty good place to get your head down.
Moving through the rotations the conversations were flowing a lot more easily than I expected, and though it seemed initially like seven minutes per date would be a long time, it was the opposite. “The time ran out so fast,” said Rachel later. “By the time you did the usual intros, the mission just became a distraction, but I guess it was pretty fun to try, even though I failed.” Dannie was more blunt, “I ignored the mission, I was more interested in the guys I was meeting!”
Some couldn’t resist breaching the visual gap by initiating contact with each other beyond the strangers’ voice that sat opposite. When I saw handholding going on, I was impressed, and wondered if my cupid’s arrow would actually find its mark.
Having built up 28 minutes worth of anticipation, we were all looking forward to the reveal. Would all this conversation translate into any action? Would Les sweep Rachel off her feet and put her in his suitcase back to Australia? Would Dannie jump into Solomon’s arms and declare undying love for her new Latino Marine?
Anniken gave us a dose of Estonian reality. “I think everyone should date blind for the first three months, and really get to know each other. Because even though I found all of the guys interesting while blindfolded, as soon as we revealed, I lost interest immediately. I think I have to go back and think about a few things.”
Nice guy Solomon may have had his fancy taken by one or two of his dates, but at day’s end was keeping his cards close to his chest, as was Henrike. “I really enjoyed the experience, it’s super interesting to build up a picture in your head of what that person looks like from their voice, and then when you see them, it’s nothing like what you expect.”
But did any sparks fly at all?
Calvin was the only one who admitted to having a strategy. “I knew what I wanted to find out, so I tried my best to control the conversation. I don’t think there was any obvious ‘chemistry’ per se, but they were all very lovely ladies to talk to.”
Whether or not love comes to town, one thing was clear; not being able to see the other person opened up our daters a lot more than they all expected. Without distraction by physical appearance and body language — visual cues that usually frame our communication — our daters talked openly. There was no awkward eye contact or uncomfortable body language to deal with, and what started out as a bit of fun ended up being an interesting social experiment.
“Not seeing the other person, I really had to rely on listening to get to know them,” said Les. “It’s definitely made me realise how important that is. I probably don’t do it enough.”
Check out more from behind the scenes online at wordvietnam.com