A gut feeling

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Nguyen Thi Diep (R), her son Hieu (C) and her brother ông Mập (Mr. Fat) serve some of the best sweets in town in front of a pagoda on Vo Van Tan Street. The chè khoai môn (below), a sticky rice and purple taro paste topped with salty coconut goo. Imagine, if you can, a hot buttered scoop of oatmeal-flavored ice cream.

Many a sad frog has transformed into an unwitting prince shortly after stepping off the plane in Vietnam.

The pasty man discovers his wan skin has the power to make a coconut-milk bathing Ben Tre beauty tear out her hair in envy. The hairy man learns that his unsightly abundance implies an animal-like sexual prowess.

The fat man (mocked in childhood, ridiculed in high school and picked last for every sports team) finds himself in a society that judges a man not by the size of his heart, but the size of his stomach.

A good man, after all, is a tốt bụng (a good belly), and all earthly pleasures go back to the guts. To make someone happy in Vietnam is to vui lòng"”to fill his or her intestines with joy.

The image of the Buddha looms large here"”not the tranquil waif sitting in the Lotus position, but the obese, scantily clad good-time guy.

Vietnam is like a place where a fat, pale, hairy guy can finally get a little respect.

Plump children with their shorts pulled up around their paunches continue to be paraded through the town by proud parents whose daily exercise begins and ends with kick-starting a motorbike.

CHÈ SUMO

Address: 241 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
(in front of Thien Ban Tu Pagoda)
Hours: 5 p.m.-until it's over
Price: VND6,000 per bowl

But if word of diabetes keeps spreading and gyms keep popping up, Vietnam will soon come to the sad conclusion that being fat has little to do with being healthy or wealthy.

In the meantime, I will continue to cultivate my lovely curves by visiting Chè Ông Mập (Mr. Fat's dessert porridge).

Mr. Fat's is actually a family operation headed by Nguyen Thi Diep"”a bubbly, broad-shouldered Saigonese who has been slinging sweets on Vo Van Tan Street for the past two decades.

Diep's older brother ông Mập typically fronts the operation with Hieu (her 18-year-old son) who has the build of an American linebacker.

Everyday at around 5 p.m., the family gathers in front of a yellow pagoda to sell banana cake, green lentil porridge, and sweet beans.

I have become personally addicted to the chè khoai môn, a sticky rice and purple taro paste topped with salty coconut goo. Imagine, if you can, a hot buttered scoop of oatmeal-flavored ice cream.

On a recent evening, half a dozen customers idled in front of their offerings, barking elaborate pre-dinner dessert orders from the seat of their scooters.

The portly trio pulled ladles and peeled take-away bags with the practiced speed of paramedics, while Diep noted orders and dug into pots of sweet stomach spackle.

"These days they call us Chè Sumo," she said as sweat dripped down her face. "I don't care that they call us fat. It's just our body type. Some people can eat all day and stay skinny. We eat just a little and get fat."

On a recent evening, I was joined by Kieu Thanh, retired reporter from Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper. He sat in a crisp white shirt and talked about his many visits to Huntington Beach, California"”where there is no such chè.

As he spooned bits of banana cake into his mouth, the stately Thanh admitted that he began eating Diep's desserts 20 years ago, mostly so he could see Diep, who ended up marrying a (slightly chubby) van driver.

Diep's dessert offerings are not unique, Thanh said. But something about the coconut sauce keeps him coming back again and again. After finishing his bowl, the old man stood up and pointed to Hieu.

"What are you doing these days? he asked the boy.

"Studying to be a chef," he said.

"I'm going to find you a nice fat girl," Thanh said.

"I don't want a fat girl," he answered. "I want a skinny girl."

"But you're so fat!"

"I know. I'm a fat guy who wants a skinny girl. I'll find a skinny girl who wants a fat guy."

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