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Cà Rem Cây, Kem Chuối and the Frozen Tickets to Our Childhood

Sometimes, when I hear the distant sound of a tinkling bell, fond memories of summer days from my wonder years come flooding back to me.

Like many children who grew up in the city, I greeted the summers of my childhood with a sense of dread and boredom. The relentless extension of the urban sprawl had robbed us of the joy of flying kites in a field, or splashing in a cool pond. Instead, we endured the scorching heat in our concrete cocoon, our little bodies drenched in sweat if we dared venture outside to play. When it was high noon, our alleyway fell quiet and deserted, everyone sought refuge indoors to escape the punishing sun.

Kem ốc quế (ice cream cones).

Amidst that stifling atmosphere, the only sound that could break the silence was the gentle, rhythmic ringing of a bell. My eyes, momentarily drooped due to midday drowsiness, would suddenly open wide. My ears would strain to locate the source of the sound and I would quickly slip on my flip-flops and scurry along the sizzling asphalt road to follow the fading echo. Slowing down to a complete stop at a corner of the alley, an old motorbike stood, resting on its seat was a metal freezer box.

"Ice comes ice cream!" — the driver, a man whom I would later only know as “the ice cream uncle,” belted enthusiastically, bringing out all the children in the neighborhood. In my memory, the ice cream uncle was a hot-season version of Santa Claus — he was not plump, jolly-looking, nor bearded. Rather, the uncle was a scrawny and tan-skinned figure, his complexion darkened from hustling under the sun all day long. But calling him Santa Claus wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, as every time he came, he brought with him joyful and refreshing treats to share with us.

Kem đá bào (Shaved ice with syrup).

From the icebox at the back of his carriage, the uncle scooped out small balls of ice cream, placed them on crumbly waffle cones, and sprinkled some crushed peanuts and Ông Thọ condensed milk on top. There was even a house special, where three ice cream scoops were rolled into a sweet bread roll, priced at only VND2,000–5,000. In the hot Saigon noontime, a bite into these frozen sorbets felt like being transported to a distant oasis, where gentle breezes and calm blue lakes and seas awaited us urban-bound children.

Those were the years when I was in elementary school. I would pocket every bit of loose change around the house just to experience that fleeting moment of coolness and sweetness. On days when I couldn't manage to scrape together any money, I would stand by the door, peering for a long time until the shadow of the vehicle disappeared and the tinkling sound faded away, as if summer had left me behind.

By today's standards, my childhood treat is not considered fancy or even exceptionally delicious. The texture is airy rather than creamy, and as it is mostly made of ice, it melts more quickly than one could have enjoyed. The flavors were simple — strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and if one was really lucky, taro or coconut. Sometimes, the only difference was in appearance, as they most probably all used the same flavoring agents. Food safety was also not ideal back in the day, so unexpected bowel movements were always a likelihood, a cautionary tale that the media would often warn children about to deter consumption.

Kem ống/kem que (popsicles).

The Vietnamese word for ice cream, kem (or cà rem in the Southern dialect) originated from the French word “crème” as the dish was introduced to Vietnam during the French colonial period. Crème refers to creme fraiche or fresh cream, an essential ingredient for making a true gelato as the west would define it.

Kem ốc quế, the version that I indulged in as a child, however, only constituted powdered milk and sweetener, thus lacking the rich and creamy flavor its western counterpart possessed. It was an adaptation by Vietnamese society in a period of economic hardships after Đổi Mới. Fresh milk and pure cream were still considered luxury items, and their preservation was costly. Thanks to simple, makeshift freezer boxes, children from working or middle-class families like mine could still taste the flavors of summer.

Kem bòn bon (ice pop).

I came to realize that our subsequent summers were filled with many “ice cream-like but not actually ice cream” treats similar to this. They arrived on bicycles and motorcycles, carried by tan-skinned Santas, characterized by the tinkling sound of bells, or even accompanied by a loud pre-recorded announcement from blaring speakers.

A favorite of mine was a dessert called xi rô đá bào. The vendor, with a cloth in hand, would hold a large block of ice and scrape thin ice shavings onto a cup. Colorful syrups and condensed milk were drizzled over the ice to create a sweet and fancy flavor. To add a touch of sourness, slices of fruits like oranges or limes could be sprinkled on top. The syrup, stored in a green glass container without a label, was a good indicator that it was a reliable, authentic xi rô đá bào cart.

Frozen yogurt.

Kem ống emerged as an upgrade from kem ốc quế, featuring a wider variety of flavors like mung bean, black bean, or jackfruit. In a stainless steel container, each ice cream stick was placed in a long, pointed iron tube. The pre-mixed powdered milk was poured into the tubes, which were then shaken, rotated, and sealed. Inside the container were large trays of ice covered with salt to ensure maximum coldness. After a few minutes, the liquid had frozen, and each ice cream stick emitted a plume of smoke when placed in my hand.

Later on, as household appliances became more affordable, even the neighbors in my community could participate in the homemade ice cream industry. I no longer had to wait for the tinkling sound of bells at the end of the alley. I could simply visit the local tạp hóa whenever I craved bòn bon, ya-ua, or kem chuối.

Bòn bon was made with fruit-flavored syrup poured into plastic tubes, while ya-ua was frozen in pouches, and kem chuối was a mixture of coconut milk, condensed milk, and mashed plantains. My joy during summer days revolved around standing in front of the freezer section, feeling lightheaded from the cool air, and carefully selecting the largest ice cream bars or pouches, just like how my mother picked vegetables at the market.

Kem chuối (banana pops).

I have since grown up and ventured far from the old alley. The sound of bells rarely echoes in the city, and I don't know where to find many of the old-fashioned ice cream flavors anymore. Rapid economic development has allowed people to enjoy ice cream made from actual dairy and fruits, of various flavors and origins. On a scorching summer day, I can treat myself to an organic Italian gelato, an avocado frozen treat from Đà Lạt, or a bowl of Korean bingsu. And yet, a taste of childhood lingers in the back of my mind: that powdery, artificial sweetness that made the hot noons less oppressive, enough to make one feel instantly like a child again upon hearing the fleeting sound of bells passing by on a summer day.

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