This month’s street snacker was carried out in the record-breaking heat wave that Hanoi experienced last month, and so naturally, we went for kem dua, which takes two of the best things in life, coconuts and ice cream, and puts them together to make a refreshing cool concoction.
It’s no secret that young Vietnamese are very keen on the frozen stuff, and spending a summer here will tell you why. So taking a break from UV overload to go to town on an ice-cream serving the size of a child’s head is probably what the doctor would recommend, although we never actually asked any doctors about this.
Put the Ice in the Coconut
The dish is popular all over Hanoi, but the single most famous kem dua spot in town is Kem Dua Hang Than (29 Hang Than, Ba Dinh). The place looks like a middle-class Vietnamese person’s living room, with white walls, tile flooring, and ornate-looking dark wooden furniture with some speakers and a DVD player on top — hinting that it probably is someone’s actual living room.
It almost feels as if the place has moved up a notch from the hustle of street vendors outside, but they’ve kept one signature aesthetic to remind everyone of their humble origins; little red plastic stools that look like they were looted from Bag End.
I have to park my motorbike across the street. It’s 8pm and the place is full with students, young professionals, and families tucking into hollowed-out coconut shells filled with ice cream.
The kem dua (VND70,000) comes in a one-size-fits-all fashion, a hollowed out coconut shell filled with ice cream (made from coconut water) and topped with grated coconut and a swirl of chocolate sauce. One serving is enough to share between two, and this is obvious as soon as you walk in the door due to the large number of young couples sharing a shell.
The menu itself is in Vietnamese, so it’s worth noting what else is available: caramen (caramel flan) is just VND7,000 per plate. Its texture isn’t for everyone, but it’s got a pleasant taste, with hints of coffee breaking through the dominant caramel flavour. Also on the menu is thach dua xiem (coconut jelly served in a hollowed out coconut shell), and nuoc dua (coconut water).
In a way it’s strange seeing a set-up similar to an everyday street food spot but where everyone is dining on ice cream and caramel flan. It almost feels like someone should be rolling up their flan in rice paper, topping it off with some pineapple and cucumber and dipping it in fish sauce.
Just a stone’s throw from Kem Dua Hang Than is Kem Thinh Hang (37 Hang Than, Ba Dinh), where the kem dua is a more reasonable VND60,000, and the menu is more interesting with ice cream sundaes for VND30,000 and various sweet-filled yogurt desserts for VND15,000 per serving.
The quality here is about on par with their more popular cousin down the road, although the space is smaller, and the emphasis appears to be less on kem dua and more on traditional Vietnamese desserts, which is a bonus if you’re looking for extra selection.
It seems, however, that while Hang Than street fills up with imitators, any Hanoian will still tell you that to get the best coconut ice cream in Hanoi, you go to 29 Hang Than, and the flocks of hungry customers seem to reinforce that opinion.
Kem Dua Hang Than is located at 29 Hang Than, Ba Dinh, Hanoi and is open 9am to 10pm. Kem Thinh Hang is located at 37 Hang Than, Ba Dinh, Hanoi and is open 9am to 10.30pm.
Photos by Teigue John Blokpoel