Escape Hunt allows visitors to act as detectives and solve mysteries to escape from a room. Michael Tatarski dons a Sherlock Holmes hat to crack the case. Photos by Vinh Dao.

It was an average Tuesday afternoon but above the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on the corner of Vo Van Tan and Cach Mang Thang 8, we had just been informed of a murder and  were tasked with finding the culprit.

This is not a revisionist dream. It is one of the scenarios presented at Escape Hunt, an exciting addition to Saigon’s entertainment scene that opened in late August. With branches all over the world, Escape Hunt is based on ‘escape the room’ video games and themed along the lines of the Sherlock Holmes series. Your group is locked in a room littered with clues related to the assigned mystery, and you have one hour to solve the case and unlock the door.

Escape Hunt Ho Chi Minh City features six rooms and three different storylines: Murder at the Presidential Palace, Blackmail in the Bar and Kidnapping at the Opera. Two of the rooms have a window that allows teams to watch each other and compete to see who can escape first. The other rooms are dedicated to single groups of up to five people, who must work together to solve their mystery.

The experience begins in the comfortable lounge, which is reached by following signs through the café to the third floor. Decorated like an old English tea room, visitors can relax on plush sofas and chairs surrounded by detective paraphernalia: magnifying glasses, chemicals, books, a typewriter and an old-fashioned pipe. You can also choose to wear a plaid detective outfit, replete with double-bill cap and cape.

Our group of four was briefed on the situation and led into the appropriate room. We took note of a locked box that requires a key to open. This was our final objective: we had to find the key, open the box and press a button to unlock the main door and escape. We were also told that you are allowed to ask for hints through an intercom but each request costs the team one minute of playing time. A digital clock on the wall showed our remaining time: 60:00. The attendant exited through a small side door, and we began our detective work.

I can’t go into too much detail without giving things away, but the room was full of items that at first seemed completely random: jewelry, a few clocks, various handicrafts and a laminated sheet providing information on one of the murder suspects. The pieces of furniture in the room had combination locks which we had to figure out how to open to access more clues. A whiteboard sat on one wall so we could note clues and possible combinations.

We quickly realised this was going to be a serious challenge, and after 20 minutes we had gotten nowhere. A clue was requested, and the subsequent penalty incurred. We improved over the next third of the hour, and the last section turned frantic as we neared the solution. We had uncovered several more suspects, and the information on each one hid a further clue. The final step involved an ingenious use of blacklight, and we finally, triumphantly opened the door. After exiting we were told that we had actually gone over the allowed amount of time, but since the staff knew we were close to solving the crime they decided to let us play on.

Once your group finishes you are allowed to relax in the lounge for a while so you can discuss the mystery and figure what you could have done better, or what your favourite parts were. Hot tea is provided as well, and the quiet piano music in the background provides a great setting.

Even though our group may have been a little slow, we all agreed this was a novel way to spend an afternoon. While Saigon’s creative scene has expanded significantly over the last few years, it still seems that all too often the choices of what to do on a given day fit in a small range and generally involve drinking. I enjoy a few drinks as much as anyone else but Escape Hunt provides a much different recreational outlet: the use of your brain. Thinking through the crime and trying to connect the disparate clues was frustrating but also exciting.

You must book an Escape Hunt room in advance, and they are available from 9am to 9pm every day. The cost ranges from VND 460,000 per person to VND 340,000 per person, with lower prices for bigger groups. This may seem steep at first, but the service and design are both highly professional and the experience completely worth the price. After all, where else can someone with no police experience solve a murder for the cost of a nice dinner?