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Hẻm Gems: It Doesn't Get More Coconut Than This Streetside Ice Cream

Head to Tân Bình District if the idea of coconut ice cream served in a coconut with a crunchy coconut topping excites you.

Walking on Ấp Bắc Street, you can get ice cream packaged in plastic from the usual places such as the 7-Eleven or the Circle K. Alternatively, grab a seat next to the Kem Dừa street cart to experience a cooling coconuty serving of indulgence.  

Kem Dừa is operated from a Sirius Yamaha motorbike which has had its front wheel replaced with a two-wheeled aluminum refrigeration system and topped with two colorfully patterned umbrellas. 

Part of the joy of the Kem Dừa experience is the theater of its preparation. First, a narrow slice into the center of the coconut allows the coconut water to be emptied into a blue pitcher. When the pitcher is full, it is collected in large plastic water bottles and kept in an ice chest that sits on the seat of the motorbike. On my visit, I saw Kem Dừa's operator fill a cup for the security guard of the neighboring Coffee House.

Next, the coconut is split evenly in half and its meat is scraped into long slippery strips. The halved coconut has now become a visually pleasing "bowl" with a circle of the coconut's skin still visible around the bottom, creating a vivid stripe of green.

The concave center of the coconut is now ready to be filled with ice cream which is expertly scooped from deep within the metal basin into a bouquet of delicate spirals. Now for the toppings. I went for the crunchy roasted peanuts, dried coconut flakes and got cajoled into a drizzling of chocolate sauce which ended up being, unsurprisingly because chocolate, a lovely addition. If in the mood for a sweet kick of condensed milk, that is also available. And there you have it, a sweet summer treat for only VND15,000.

It's not a revolutionary dessert but it is a good one thanks to ice cream's core features: it's creamy, it's cold, it's sweet, and the toppings add delightful variety to the smooth texture. The stand out element is the coconut meat resting at the bottom. It has a gnawable quality that offers something similar to mochi or boba, but better for the springing straight out of the coconutness of it as opposed to the culinary production of its counterparts. In this particular bowl, the coconut meat's heartiness is made decadent by its sugary surroundings.

Ice cream holds an interesting place in the culture. It is somehow the response to heartbreak for many an on-screen heroine, a symbol of childhood summers that come with sticky fingers and chins, and is also placed along with the foods considered bad in our self-hating good/bad food binary. For its frivolous lack of nutritional value and high caloric content, ice cream is denigrated, along with many delicious things, to the folder labeled "gluttony." However, this ice cream cannot be firmly placed amongst the sinful as its key ingredient is a health craze darling — the coconut.

Besides the health benefits of coconut, real or imaginary, one can feel superior for the lack of waste created from this goodie. It's rare to get street food without any plastic or styrofoam packaging and this coconut bowl will get you wishing that all foods could be served out of the husk of their main ingredient. In this way, with its nods to "zero waste" consumption and coconut related food snobbery, a bite of kem dừa is a complex love triangle between its consumer, cheeky gluttony and its dour sibling "wellness."

Putting complex food contexts aside, I ended my dessert looking into my bowl and watching the creamy twirls disintegrate which reminded me that everything beautiful will eventually turn into smush and maybe that's the beauty of it. What is beauty without a little longing for the unmelted ice cream of the past? Regardless, I look forward to my next bowl.

Kem Dừa Ấp Bắc is open from 11am to 3pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4.5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5 — if you're able to snag a shady seat.

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 3/5 

Govi is enthusiastic about the golden hour, clouds, trees, bodies of water, breezes, faces, big hair, and thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.

Coconut ice cream

11 Ấp Bắc, Ward 13, Tân Bình



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