All images courtesy of Thach Van Thang
Last December, I’d travelled solo to Hanoi to escape all semblance of Singapore. This proved futile just two days into the trip.
Feeling peckish while wandering around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, I decided to head for a row of cute shophouses flanking the waters. Among the haze of flashing Vietnamese letters on the signboards, my eyes were involuntarily drawn to a familiar phrase I never thought I’d see there: ‘Singapore Ice Cream Sandwich’.
The nostalgic treat—a common fixture outside schools and at HDB estates in the past—has been increasingly hard to find in recent years. But here I was, over 3,000km from home, looking at two Singapore-style ice cream sandwich stalls within metres of each other.
Around the stores, tourists (an educated guess based on the ear-piercing yells in English and shopping bags) and locals milled with their carby, icy desserts in hand.
It was about 18°C out—chilly by my standards. But it’s never too cold for ice cream. Save for people dressed to the nines in coats, it was a scene that wouldn’t be out of place along Orchard Road, where several high-profile ice cream uncles ply their trade.
“Ice cream? From Singapore, this one,” an employee materialised beside me, brandishing a laminated menu. Familiar flavours such as corn, taro, and durian greeted me. Besides the requisite wafers, the stall also offers the classic sweet rainbow bread to pair with the ice cream. Just like how it is at home.
I went for mango ice cream with wafers for old-time’s sake. The young guy pulled out a box of ice cream and began slicing into it, conjuring memories of the elderly ice cream uncle who’d frequent my HDB car park doing the exact same thing.
Biting into it brought me right back to childhood. My brothers and I would fly downstairs whenever the ice cream man rang his bell. It had been years since my last ice cream sandwich, and I don’t think I realised how much I miss it.
But how’d our humble ice cream sandwich end up all the way in Vietnam?
From Singapore to Saigon
As it turns out, one of the stalls I’d seen in Hanoi—Hawker Star—is part of a chain founded by Vietnamese couple Thach Van Thang, 39, and Dang Thi Thanh Hoa, 38.
The husband-and-wife duo are shy when we first chat—all tentative smiles and niceties. But it’s obvious that it’s a well-oiled partnership. Thang, the CEO, takes care of the bulk of the running of things. Hoa, who still works as a lawyer, supports him where she can.
The business launched in May 2020, and they claim to be the first to bring the local dessert to their country. Not without some help from Singaporeans, though.
A team of three Singaporean entrepreneurs, Ng Shi Yang and Pang Daowei, both 36, and Lin Hansheng, 41, hatched the idea. The execution was a different matter. They needed someone with intimate knowledge of how things are run in Vietnam, along with connections to local suppliers.
The Singaporeans reached out to the importer of Magnolia ice cream in Vietnam, who happened to be Thang’s family friend. Thang had a background in engineering but had always wanted to start a business. The partnership took off from there.
To say it’s doing well would be an understatement. In just three years, the chain has grown to 23 outlets spread across Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, as well as smaller provinces such as Vĩnh Phúc and Kon Tum. They also deliver the ice cream sandwiches straight to doorsteps, GrabFood-style.
Their initial investment of US$50,000 paid off. Today, the chain brings in a total of about US$50,000 every month.
For all their success, the couple has no airs. They’re content to wax lyrical to me about their love for ice cream sandwiches.
As it turns out, Vietnam has their own version of the dessert: Ice cream banh mi, a delectable concoction of ice cream scooped into a banh mi baguette, topped with condensed milk and roasted peanuts.
On TikTok, Hawker Star calls the Singapore-style ice cream sandwich an “upgraded version” of ice cream banh mi with imported ice cream.
Hoa tells me that they gravitated to the Singaporean ice cream sandwich as they loved the taste of ice cream banh mi as children but found the quality of their own local ice cream brands lacking.
“In Vietnam, you see, also we have very old brands of ice cream. But the taste, it is not the same as before.”
“Now we are parents already, and we want to do something that we can share with our children because it’s a very beautiful memory for us,” says Hoa.
Magnolia ice cream, on the other hand, impressed Thang and Hoa when they tried it. And their Singaporean business partners’ assertion that the ice cream sandwich tastes the same as it did 50 years ago sealed the deal.
Magnolia is hardly a premium brand in Singapore, but it’s still loved for its accessibility and affordability. But for Thang and Hoa, the brand’s perceived high quality in Vietnam is one of their selling points. Their status as the sole Vietnamese distributor of Magnolia’s ice cream blocks also gives them an edge over competitors.
“This [high quality] is something that we really want to keep, and we want to bring it to Vietnam,” says Hoa.
“I am also a street food lover. But if you see street food in Vietnam, sometimes it’s not clean enough. So we decided to start something new, to sell street food, but make sure it’s clean and high quality,” Thang adds.
The pair appears to have passed on their love for the sweet treat to their kids. Their 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter can eat five or six ice cream sandwiches at one go, Hoa remarks.
The Vietnamese have also taken to Singapore-style ice cream sandwiches. A Voice of Vietnam article spotlighting the trend says that locals are a fan as they are fruity and “not too sweet” (the quintessential compliment for any Asian dessert).
In Singapore, on the other hand, the ice cream sandwich isn’t doing so well. A large factor is the dwindling number of ice cream street hawkers.
Over 20 years ago, there were 30 ice cream hawkers along Orchard Road. Now there are just seven.
New licenses aren’t being issued as the intention is to phase out street hawking, then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said in 2016.
With the number of street hawkers whittling down as they retire or pass away, seeing an ice cream uncle around your neighbourhood is like striking the lottery.
Perhaps Singaporeans’ tastes have also shifted a little more atas. Nowadays, boutique ice cream cafes such as Birds of Paradise, Monarchs & Milkweed, and Dopa Dopa are cult favourites. You’d be more likely to catch Singaporeans queueing for artisanal gelato than a traditional ice cream sandwich.
Keeping Ice Cream Hawker Culture Alive
I ask Thang and Hoa if they are aware of the dwindling ice cream hawker numbers in Singapore. They both nod, offering up wry smiles.
They obviously can’t do anything about the situation here. What they hope to do is keep the legacy alive in Vietnam, Hoa says.
Though they haven’t spent a significant amount of time in Singapore, they still feel an affinity for the country. And with ice cream banh mi becoming harder to find nowadays, they can relate to keeping a culinary tradition alive.
“I think for me, my husband and also for my Singapore business partners, it’s a pity—many people are going to miss it.”
In the meantime, the pair are just doing what they can to fly the Singapore flag in Vietnam and celebrate both countries.
Thang says of Hawker Star’s logo: “The lion represents Singapore, and the buffalo represents Vietnam. This logo shows our desire to bring Singapore food and Singapore culture to Vietnam.”
They even opened their first stall at Takashimaya in Ho Chi Minh as a way to pay tribute to the ice cream stalls thronging Ngee Ann City and Orchard Road, Hoa says.
The Takashimaya brand conveys luxury and quality in Vietnam, so setting up shop there was a way for the couple to make a statement: “Because I want to tell Vietnamese customers that this ice cream sandwich is very good, the quality and everything.”
Keeping them as close to the original taste as possible is key. They import the exact same Magnolia ice cream that hawkers in Singapore use. They hunted far and wide in Vietnam for a supplier who’d be able to replicate the iconic rainbow bread.
Thang and Hoa proudly say that “not less than 90 percent” of those who’ve tried their ice cream sandwiches love them—most of their Singaporean customers have given the sandwiches their stamp of approval.
One might ask why they’ve put so much effort into such a simple snack (that’s essentially ice cream and sweetened bread), but Thang and Hoa are cognisant that for many Singaporean customers, it’s a taste of home.
Hoa recalls one young Singaporean man, based in Danang, who reached out to them, enquiring about the ice cream sandwich.
“He saw us on Facebook and was really happy because he missed this ice cream and because he couldn’t go back to Singapore to eat it.”
They ended up delivering some to him and he was “so happy”, says Hoa.
The pair are also heartened by the support from Vietnamese students who’ve studied abroad in Singapore.
“They are happy because they say they cannot find it anywhere. Yes, this ice cream sandwich is something that can bring happiness to so many.”
Not So Uniquely Singaporean
Just like the old days when vendors in Singapore would fight for spots along Orchard Road, turf wars have cropped up in Vietnam.
When I ask Thang and Hoa about the competing stall just one unit away from them in Hanoi, they show a look of resignation.
The couple reveals that the stall opened after they did, and is basically “almost a copy and paste from us”. It’s not the only stall to copy them, says Hoa; there are copies “all over Vietnam”.
Given the simplicity of the dessert’s concept, it’s not surprising at all that competitors would attempt to replicate it. But it’s easy to see how blatant attempts to copy what they do might be disheartening for the couple.
In fact, when I first stumbled upon the two stalls in Hanoi, I assumed they were the same chain due to the identical fonts on the signboard.
The other stall doesn’t just copy their offerings. It often tries to intercept their customers, says Hoa.
“We are not focusing on this issue, just because we want to move forward. We focus on our quality and our service.”
Hoa is also confident that they’ve replicated the taste and made it as close to Singapore’s as possible, especially since they’re the exclusive distributor for Magnolia’s blocks of ice cream in Vietnam.
“If you try the product from the two stalls, you can taste the difference.”
The fact that copycats have popped up, however, speaks to the popularity of the product. If the ravages of time and taste will lay waste to the legacy of ice cream sandwiches in Singapore, at least they’ll find a new lease on life 3,000km from home.
In the meantime, the couple are setting their sights higher.
“We want to build Hawker Star as not just about serving delicious ice cream, but more importantly, the emotions and benefits tied to it. We do not only sell ice cream only. We also sell happiness.”
Are Singapore’s Ice Cream Sandwiches Destined To Disappear?
Thang and Hoa hit the nail on the head when it comes to recognising the emotional appeal of a good dessert. Even with the proliferation of artisan gelato cafes in Singapore, the inevitable disappearance of humble ice cream sandwich stalls still hurts for anyone who grew up with them.
I say ‘inevitable’ because the government appears to be committed to phasing out street hawkers. Setting up actual ice cream sandwich shops would definitely cost more than a hawker stand and might not be sustainable given the high overhead costs in Singapore.
It’s just sad because the ice cream sandwich is still well-loved here. Singaporeans were quick to jump to the dessert’s defence in 2016 when a Buzzfeed listicle dissed it.
There is a demand for it. When the pandemic hit, and hawkers shifted online, Singaporeans jumped at the chance to get the sweet treat delivered to them.
But the end of days for ice cream sandwich uncles seems inevitable.
What will be missed, though, is the experience of stumbling upon an ice cream cart on a hot day and getting your fix right there and then. Or rushing to queue for the cart with all the other kids in the neighbourhood.
It’s lamentable that a nostalgic Singaporean dessert might soon be more common on the streets of Vietnam. But at the same time, it’s comforting that ice cream sandwiches will live on in Vietnam, even if they disappear from our streets.