Sweet Saigon: Where to Eat Chè

First published July 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

A kaleidoscopic world of luminous colours, shifting shapes, unfamiliar textures, esoteric ingredients, and rich flavours, chè is a fascinating sub-category of Vietnamese cuisine. Chè can be translated as ‘dessert’, but in reality it’s so filling, so nutritious, that chè is a meal in itself. The sheer variety of chè and innovative use of ingredients is, I think, unrivalled in any other area of Vietnamese cooking. Tropical fruits, nuts, beans, grains, seeds, flowers, roots, and vegetables all play their part. But the central component is sugar: chè is sweet. As such it appeals chiefly to Vietnam’s burgeoning youth; nowhere more so than in Saigon, where the humid tropical nights make a sweet, iced dessert that much more appealing. In a city where everyone seems to be a teenager, I spent two weeks on a sugar-high, scouting out 9 of the best chè joints in town.

Chè in SaigonVariety and diversity: chè is a mysterious world of sweet things

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GUIDE: EATING CHÈ IN SAIGON

Below are 9 great places to eat chè in Saigon, all of which are open in the afternoon and evening. Click on any name from the list to read more about it. These places have been serving chè for many years, and they are masters of their trade. The variety of chè is bewildering: menus commonly list over 30 kinds. I ordered two different chè at each place I visited, but I still barely scratched the surface. To get familiar with chè varieties, see this excellent rundown on Wikipedia. Of all the aspects of Vietnamese cuisine, chè is the one most overlooked by foreign travellers and expats. Why? A big reason is texture: unctuous, gooey, sloppy, soggy, slimy – chè reminds most people of school dinners. But get past this and you’ll peel back another layer of Vietnamese food culture. Chè is fun food: fun ingredients, fun creations, fun names: fun times. During my research, I fell for it.

  1. CHÈ KHÁNH VYDistrict 10
  2. CHÈ MỸBinh Thanh District
  3. CHÈ CỘT ĐIỆNDistrict 5
  4. CHÈ THÁI Ý PHƯƠNGDistrict 10
  5. CHÈ ÔNG MẬPDistrict 3
  6. CHÈ 75Phu Nhuan District
  7. BÉ CHÈDistrict 1
  8. CHÈ LÂM VINH MẬU: District 1
  9. MS LỘC’S CHÈ CARTDistrict 1

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MAP

9 Places to Eat Chè in Saigon:


View in a LARGER MAP

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1. CHÈ KHÁNH VY

Address: 032, Block H, Sư Vạn Hạnh Street, District 10 [MAP] | Price: 8,000-12,000vnđ

Occupying the corner of an old apartment complex that, despite its dilapidated state, is abuzz with life, Chè Khánh Vy is a classic Saigon street food star. Lit by a naked light bulb hanging from a bare concrete overhang, the damp-ridden walls, cracked paving stones, and dozen or so low plastic tables, all point to great things. And that’s exactly what you get at Khánh Vy: over 30 years, and three generations of chè artistry; this place is a treasure trove of desserts. The friendly owners preside over a impressive array of large pots and pans, filled with gooey, slimy chè varieties. The speciality is chè mâm 16 món, which is a selection of 16 small bowls of chè - fantastic if you’re in a group. Since there are only two in my ‘group’, I order bà ba - a heavy, starchy combination of sweet potato, cassava and taro in a rich coconut milk gravy – and bánh flan, which is essentially a crème caramel; a legacy of French colonial times. A young local crowd hunch over their tiny bowls on their tiny stools: this dark corner echoes to the sound of their chatter. What a place! But its future is in doubt, as the apartment building is due for demolition very soon. What next for Chè Khánh Vy?

Hot chè varieties, Khánh Vy, SaigonVariety: dozens of kinds of hot chè at Khánh Vy

Crowds at Chè Khánh Vy, SaigonBright future? Chè Khánh Vy’s location is due to be demolished

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2. CHÈ MỸ

Address: 121 Nguyễn Văn Đậu, Bình Thạnh District [MAP] | Price: 10,000-20,000vnđ

Bristling with youth, Chè Mỹ offers a dizzying variety of excellent quality chè at low prices. The neon-lit exterior draws Saigon’s youth off their motorbikes and into the fluorescent-lit interior, where they sit on plastic stools at metallic tables. The chè is fresh, colourful, and crisp. I order the house speciality: chè mỹ is a wonderful study in colour and texture, with exotic fruits and candies floating in creamy coconut milk. My second course is sâm bổ lượng, a sinister looking glass of strange shapes and dark brooding colours, like a nutty professor’s secret experiment. Filled with mysterious ingredients – Job’s tears, lotus seeds, red jujube berries, seaweed, ginseng – this chè is said to have medicinal qualities. It’s refreshing and sweet. Also on the menu is cơm rượu, a mildly alcoholic chè made from fermented rice, similar to the rice wine pudding I’ve tried in northern Vietnam.

Chè Mỹ, SaigonWeird & wonderful: a glass of chè sâm bổ lượng at Chè Mỹ

Variety at Chè Mỹ, SaigonVariety, quality, and low prices at Chè Mỹ

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3. CHÈ CỘT ĐIỆN

Address: between 476 & 478 Trần Hưng Đạo B Street, District 5 [MAP] | Price: 15,000-20,000vnđ

Named after the electricity pylon that graces the sidewalk outside, Chè Cột Điện is a diminutive old shophouse, whose faded indigo walls have somehow survived the last two decades of construction. This is Chinatown and, even in a city as buzzing as Saigon, Chinatown cranks it up to 11. The ancient house may be on its last legs, but Chè Cột Điện is as popular as ever: for 70 years it’s been in operation, and still local people of all ages flock here – tables and chairs extend along the sidewalk for a block. Inside the old house, a gaggle of women – from their early twenties to their late seventies – run the show. Under the rotting wooden rafters, there’s what can only be described as a chè laboratory: pots, pans, jars, bowls, and cups all filled with mysterious and fragrant potions. From the menu – in Vietnamese and Chinese – I order two of the least familiar varieties I can find. Served in attractive ceramic bowls, I tuck into chè quy linh cao mật ông and chè bo bo hủ ky trứng cút. Although I have only a vague idea of what these are, I learn that the former is a jelly made from honey and seaweed, and is purported to make my skin more beautiful, which is always a good thing. And the latter contains coconut milk, quail eggs, and Job’s tears, which are grain-like berries, suspiciously similar to Sugar Puffs. Both are cooling and surprisingly light. But it wouldn’t matter if the chè were only average quality: just being here is good enough.

Chè Cột Điện, SaigonStuck in time: Chè Cột Điện has been running for 70 years

Chè Cột Điện, SaigonStrange potions: this chè consists of Job’s tears and quail eggs

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4. CHÈ THÁI Ý PHƯƠNG 

Address: 380-382-384 Nguyễn Tri Phương Street, District 10 [MAP] | Price: 20,000-30,000vnđ

Popular to the point of being swamped, Chè Thái Ý Phương is worth a visit just for the atmosphere if not for the chè. Set under large old trees on one of Saigon’s busiest and best food streets, Ý Phương has been running for 30 years. A beacon of neon in the Saigon night, Ý Phương is a giant establishment, which packs hundreds of dessert diners each night. The speciality is chè Thái which, as the name suggests, has its roots in Thailand. It’s fruity, sweet, and packed with candied, jellied bits and pieces, bobbing up and down in coconut milk. I also order chè khức bạch, a famously delicate bowl of jellied coconut milk, cream, and crunchy slices of roasted almonds. Neither chè is great to look at, but both are pretty tasty. In general, this place is all about the ambience, not the food. There’s a roaring take-away trade, which involves big vats of shaved ice on the sidewalk. This drive-thru operation is ‘manned’ by a young kid, who hands out plastic bags of chè to customers who swing by on their motorbikes.

Chè Ý Phương, SaigonSwamped: Chè Thái Ý Phương is big on atmosphere

Chè Ý Phương, SaigonDrive-thru: this kid serves chè from large metallic containers to customers on motorbikes

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5. CHÈ ÔNG MẬP

Address: 241 Võ Văn Tần, District 3 [MAP] | Price: 9,000vnđ

Located on a street corner – under a nest of tangled electricity cables and a street lamp – Chè Ông Mập may look like a small, insignificant business, but this place does a roaring trade, and has done so for around 50 years. Specializing in hot chè, it’s an intimate spot where customers huddle around saucepans of warm pudding. At the centre of this street kitchen sits Ms Điệp, a fiercely welcoming, chattering, barking, laughing island of a woman. Chè plays second fiddle to Ms Điệp’s giant personality. In perpetual motion, she swoops and scoops over the pots and pans, serving multiple portions in a matter of seconds, while engaging customers and passersby in banter. She’s a multi-tasking, multi-tentacled force of nature; a classic Saigon street food star. I order chè chuối nướng - grilled banana and tapioca pudding – and chè đậu trắng, which is a stodgy assortment of black-eyed beans and sweet sticky rice. Both are silky, creamy, sloppy and crunchy. Try to get here early in the evening, because she only serves while stocks last: on my first visit, at 9pm, she’d already run out.

Chè Ông Mập, SaigonForce of nature: Ms Điệp owns this corner of Saigon with her personality (and her chè)

Chè Ông Mập, SaigonWhile stocks last: Chè Ông Mập is small but popular; get here early

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6. CHÈ 75

Address: 75-77 Trần Huy Liệu, Phú Nhuận District [MAP] | Price: 15,000-30,000vnđ

A substantial building with seating on two floors and an encyclopedic menu of chè varieties, Chè 75 is run by a lovely older couple, with smiles that warm your soul. Although this place attracts a slightly older, more affluent crowd – it’s especially popular with families – the prices are still very reasonable and there’s plenty of atmosphere. There’s even a very admirable attempt at an English translation of their enormous menu – a task I would have thought impossible. One of the house specialities is rau câu trái dừa - a young coconut whose juice has been jellified. It’s surprisingly tasteless, but when mixed with the flesh of the coconut it gains some flavour, and is famed for being cooling and refreshing. I also order chè trôi nước, which is one of those fun varieties of chè: a big, gelatinous ball of goo floating in a warm bath of slimy coconut milk, sprinkled with sesame seeds. There’s a delicious ginger tang to this chè, and I really enjoy sinking my teeth into the giant orb. Chè 75 has been going for 25 years, and continues to prosper.

Chè 75, SaigonGoo ball: chè trôi nước is an edible orb

Chè 75, SaigonChè 75: excellent chè in a friendly environment for 25 years

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7. BÉ CHÈ

Address: Bến Thành Market, stall No.1154-1130, District 1 [MAP] | Price: 15,000-25,000vnđ

With a prime spot in the frenetic food court of Bến Thành Market, Bé Chè is another long-running (50 years) Saigon food stall. It’s heaving at lunch time, when shoppers, market workers, and a few adventurous tourists jostle for space around this colourful shrine to chè. Behind the glass cabinet there’s an entire library of chè: a hypnotic display of beans, grains, candies, seeds and vivid, bold colours. A fantastic illustrated menu in English and Vietnamese (with prices) makes Bé Chè very accessible to travellers: in fact, a glass of chè here is probably the most rewarding thing any visitor could do at Bến Thành Market. It’s a shame, however, that the women in charge of the stall have a tendency to be gruff and grumpy. But the presentation and quality more than make up for it. I order chè sương sa hột lựu, an electric, luminous glass of candied fruit in a coconut milk that is particularly flavoursome. The glass is full of slithery, wiggly, wormy things that could well be alive, for all I know. My second glass is chè hột sen, lotus seeds on ice. This takes me completely by surprise: lotus seeds are often rather bitter, but chè hột sen is flowery, fragrant, and sweet – it’s like drinking rosewater or the dew from from a jasmine flower: sublime.

Bé Chè, SaigonLotus seed (left) and candied pomegranate (right) at Bé Chè

Bé Chè, SaigonMore exotic chè varieties on display at Bé Chè

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8. CHÈ LÂM VINH MẬU

Address: 31 Nguyễn Thái Bình Street, District 1 [MAP] | Price: 25,000vnđ

Served from a beautiful wooden cart with decorative carvings and colourful murals, Chè Lâm Vinh Mậu has been in business since the late 1950s. Back then, the cart was wheeled around the city – a mobile chè trolley, moving from street to street. Nowadays, it’s stationary, sitting on a quiet, dark street in central Saigon. Mr Hưng, 57, serves me. He’s been working here since he was a a young man. Hưng is disapproving when I tell him of all the other chè joints I’ve visited in the city. He insists that his chè is the best, and backs this up by offering me tasters of each of the varieties on the cart. After that, I order the house speciality, chè đậu hủ hạnh nhân - a gelatinous almond flan in a sweet, clear syrup. It’s subtle, cool and refreshing – what Vietnamese would call mát lạnh. The almond flavour comes as a nutty aftertaste. Next I try the weirdest chè I can see on display: chè trứng gà hồng trà, literally chicken’s egg in pink tea. Strange as it may sound,  I loved this chè, perhaps more than any other I’ve tried. The tea is hot, the egg is boiled, and somehow they come together harmoniously. It’s comforting, warm, nourishing, and there are notes of tobacco in the tea. For more on Chè Lâm Vinh Mậu take a look at this video by Saigoneer and Only in Saigon.

Chè Lâm Vinh MậuComfort food: this chè consists of boiled chicken egg and black tea

Chè Lâm Vinh MậuHưng has been serving chè at Lâm Vinh Mậu since he was a young man

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9. Ms LỘC’S CHÈ CART

Address: Corner of Nguyễn Đình Chiếu & Đinh Tiên Hoàng, District 1 [MAP] | Price: 5,000-10,000vnđ

Ms Lộc and her husband have been operating this small chè cart for 30 years. On the corner of a busy intersection near central Saigon, she says the work is hard, but the tradition of chè in her family is strong. From her tiny chè trolley, Ms Lộc spoons out over a dozen varieties of chè to passersby on foot or on motorbikes. An array of saucepans showcase fresh and bright concoctions, many of which are ladled into plastic bags and hung from the trolley, awaiting take-away customers. I order chè thưng – a combination of root vegetables, mushrooms, and candied fruit in coconut milk – and chè bắp, which is a warm and comforting corn and rice pudding. The chè is sticky, dense, rich and served in plastic cups on small plastic stools: very informal; very Saigon.

Ms Lộc's Chè corner, SaigonBagged up: chè hanging from Ms Lộc’s cart for take-out customers

Ms Lộc's Chè corner, SaigonBeacon in the night: Ms Lộc’s chè cart lights up a busy Saigon intersection


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20 Responses to Sweet Saigon: Where to Eat Chè

  1. Hazel says:

    Hi! I’m a massive chè fan and I’ve just moved to Saigon from Hanoi. I’ve already been to a few places down here but I’m going to check all of these out asap. I’m looking forward to more weird and wonderful flavours :) Thanks!

  2. Charlotte Kleyn says:

    Hi Tom,

    Great post, thanks!
    Do you remember which place had the biggest offer on che? So the most varieties?

    Hope to hear from you!

    Cheers,
    Charlotte

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  7. Terry says:

    I had never heard of chè, but after reading this article I tried it, and love it! Thanks for the write up!

  8. An Le says:

    Hi Tom,

    Great selection of chè. Thêre is a great cold chinese chè place on Nguyen Dinh Chieu, a few houses after the corner of Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, it calls Thạch Chè Hiển Khánh. I think its been there since the early 70’s. Really worth a visit, their “chè broth” is not too sweet and have the scent of jasmine. Very refreshing. Also you can check out the hủ tiếu bò viên place on the next alley of Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, the best bò viên in Sai Gon

  9. Bob Pfister says:

    Great! I love the photos Tom! I can’t wait for my next trip to Saigon…I typically don’t have a sweet tooth but from what I see here, this is a perfect dessert for me! I am reading this at 7am here in US and my mouth is watering and now the cravings begin!
    Thanks!
    Bob

  10. Thao says:

    Tom ơi,

    Thanks for the post, I want to try “chè trứng gà hồng trà” at quán chè Lâm Vinh Mậu since you said this is your most favourite of all chè. This Chè is actually originated from China. It is also a speciality of Shanghai which is recommended to tourists who visit the city.

  11. Phuong Khuu says:

    Hi Tom,
    I remember you once said that you were not very interested in che but you did a very good job on this article. As a che-lover, I think that these che stalls above are all excellent and qualified for me :). I recommend one more place where they serve Cambodian che. It’s located inside the flower market, Hồ Thị Kỷ market. If you like the durian smell, you’ll love che there since they’re really unique and delicate.

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