Nguyen Thi Tu (pictured above) has been serving chè on the same corner of Nguyen Kiem, Phu Nhuan District in Ho Chi Minh City, ever since the reunification of Vietnam. “I started selling chè in 1976”, she recalls vividly. “Just after the war was over.” While details like her own birth year have become hazy over the years, Tu’s span as a chè vendor remain in her memory as sharp as ever.
Once a housewife to a navy officer of the south, Tu found herself in need of work after the army was dismantled following the reunification. Many Vietnamese people packed up and immigrated including Tu’s cousin who set sail for America. Luckily before that, Tu’s cousin taught her how to make chè.
It’s remarkable to think that these humble desserts could sustain an entire family for over 40 years, yet that’s just what they did. Her family, including her son and nieces, have came through many difficult times thanks to the stall. When Tu started out, she served a huge variety of chè. Nowadays, due to resources, she offers a selection of five. This includes chè đậu trắng (white beans), chè trôi nước (mung beans dumplings in gingery sweet liquid), chè táo xọn (mung beans), chè đậu xanh bột báng (mung beans and tapioca) and chè chuối chưng (steamed bananas). “Back then, my young nieces would help me. I would sell all day with much larger variety. Now they’ve all gone off and have their own families.” Her great-nieces and great-nephews still take time to stop by to say hello once in while, but mostly it’s just her and her husband running the show now.
Tu’s stall has changed so little in a city that’s changed so fast that it’s become something of an anachronism. Unlike other chè shops, it’s great to not see any single use plastic cups or spoons. Tu still faithfully uses the bowls, spoons, chè pots, and an old kettle that she has used from the 70s. Passersby will see a kerosene lamp, which her stall is named after “Chè Đèn Dầu” (Kerosene Lamp Chè). “Long ago, there was no streetlight or any traffic here. I had to have the lamp here to see anything.”
Tu, feeling nostalgic, laughs at her run-ins with previous authorities. Since weekly, monthly and annual taxes used to be levied on street vendors, there was hardly anything left for Tu and her family after deduction. “Once I tried to avoid taxes by registering as a hawker. I used a bamboo pole. When the inspector came, I just said I was a hawker resting on the sidewalk. Since there was a pole there was nothing they could do,” Tu smiles. “Then one day the taxes just went away. I think there were too many complaints about them.”
Until a few months ago, Tu had to pay rent for the space on the sidewalk. Then the house owner next door agreed to let her run her stall at night free of charge in front of their property. Life since then seems almost easygoing to her. “I work until late, but I get to wake up late too. I wake at 11am to clean the house and have lunch before getting to work again.”
Back in 1976, Tu sold one serving of chè at 3 hào – a now defunct currency unit that equals to roughly one tenth of a dong. As time went by, she gradually lifted the price to the current VND5,000 per serving. “Many people tell me I should make it VND7,000 VND10,000, but I won’t do it.” On the sidewalk, Tu has witnessed many generational changes. Married women who visited her as teenagers now bring their teenage daughters with them. Ho Chi Minh City has of course rapidly changed since the 1970s, but for the most parts, this chè queen likes to keep things how they’ve always been.
Chè Đèn Dầu is located at 504 Nguyen Kiem, Phu Nhuan District and is open every day from 9pm-1am.