Although chè is one of the most popular desserts in Vietnam – and in many Southeast Asian countries under the name “cendol” – it can also be one of the hardest to find. This is because chè doesn’t necessarily look like dessert at all, it looks more like a pick ‘n’ mix of tinned vegetables – but we promise it doesn’t taste like that!
This “sweet soup” is made with a variety of ingredients, from kidney beans to jelly and glutinous rice to fruit. These will be dropped in a sweetened soup, often with coconut cream or yogurt, and served in a bowl or plastic cup. There are a few common combinations of ingredients in Ho Chi Minh City, but you’re usually welcome to pick and choose what you fancy.
Bánh trung thu
Also known as mooncake, bánh trung thu translates to “mid-autumn cake”, and is served almost exclusively during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The festival celebrates the end of the busy rice-harvesting period and a chance for parents to spend quality time with their children again. As a result, kids are often spoilt with fun gifts and delicious bánh trung thu, but people of all ages can be seen munching on this sweet treat during the festivities.
There are two types of bánh trung thu: baked or with sticky rice, but both are incredibly sweet and beautifully decorated with intricate patterns. If you’re lucky enough to be in Ho Chi Minh City during the festival, which will be in September this year, make sure to try mooncake while you have the chance.
Bánh da lợn
This neon-green dessert is made by steaming layers of tapioca starch, rice flour and mung beans, along with a few other ingredients, depending on the flavor of the cake. Although this dish looks as if it might glow in the dark, surprisingly, it’s one of the milder desserts in Ho Chi Minh City. Bánh da lợn, or “pig skin cake”, is usually flavored with mung beans, durian or taro, so the cake doesn’t taste as sweet as other Vietnamese desserts.
Chuối chiên, or deep-fried banana, is a common street snack in Ho Chi Minh City. This popular dessert is made with small bananas, known locally as chuối xiêm or chuối sứ, which are much sweeter than the large bananas usually sold in Western countries. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, warm and a little gooey on the inside – chuối chiên a great snack for picky eaters or those who prefer fruit over sweets.
Rau câu dừa
Rau câu dừa is a simple concept: coconut jelly in a coconut shell – but it’s oh-so-delicious! Vietnamese desserts often include coconut in some way or another but, surprisingly, this is one of the less common desserts in Ho Chi Minh City. So, to find rau câu dừa, you may have to consult your guidebook or ask a local.
Although this is technically a drink rather than a dessert, we would argue that bạc xỉu is, pretty much, liquid cake. Rather sweet already, traditional Vietnamese white coffee is served with sweetened, condensed milk. However, if you’ve got an especially sweet tooth, you can opt for the even more sugary bạc xỉu. This delicious beverage is served not only with plenty of condensed milk, but coconut milk too.
If you prefer an alcoholic drink to dessert, cơm rượu is the best of both worlds. This unusual sweet treat is made of glutinous rice balls, which are mixed with yeast and dropped in a milky, alcoholic liquid. Translating as “rice wine dessert”, cơm rượu has a similar flavor to Vietnamese rice wine – but be warned, it is definitely an acquired taste!