Mr Bean is not just a sporadically amusing rubber faced buffoon in a near silent BBC comedy with global appeal. You know, the consistently irritating creation that lags far behind the genius of Rowan Atkinson's other Creation - Blackadder. This Mr Bean is a 60 year old Vietnamese travel guide who on a daily basis takes tourist around the notorious Cu Chi Tunnel network (near Saigon) that helped the Viet Cong defeat the Americans.
An entertaining and witty guy, the laughter lines however hide an arduous life. In the late 60's his sympathies were clearly with the Communists in the North. This was until one day when the troops came and murdered his 20 year old fiance in Saigon. Raging with anger and grief he left the country and went to live in America. His father was a US citizen living in Saigon of Filipino origin. He eventually joined the US army and came back to Saigon 2 years later to fight with them. In 1973 the war was over and 2 years later North and South were reunified. The communist victors forced their people into 5 years of internal oppression. It was during this time that Mr Bean's sympathies were discovered and he was sent to a reeducation camp for 5 brutal job. His job was in mine clearance.
1980 saw his release in the year that effectively ended more or less 120 years of internal and external conflict in Vietnam. So he went to his family home to find that it had been occupied by the military and was hence turned away. He tried to find his family but nobody gave any solid answers, only that they had fled. Without even 2 dongs to rub together he had to start earning money from scratch, including dealing with bootleg goods.
In the 90s, with the advent of the Internet he was able to locate his family and fortunately all his immediate family had survived. Some were living in the US. Mr Bean's story could make a movie and indeed he counts as his friends the film director Oliver Stone who directed a Vietnam Trilogy. Mr Bean's story captivated the audience on the 90 minute bus journey to the tunnels. He was full of criticism for America's (let us not beat around the George Bush) genocide in Vietnam and for the harsh treatment of the communist oppressors. This is the first time anyone has spoken for so long and so openly about his life.
Learning about Mr B's experiences on route to the tunnels gave the actual visit some added resonance. What followed brought it home further. It is always an option on the tour for foreigners to experience living in what was 5km of underground tunnels. There is a short stretch that has been cleared of snakes (one hopes) and has been widened to fit Westerners. It was however still a claustrophobia inducing mere 120 metres that I crawled through. It was hot, dusty and often pitch black. It quite honestly felt like a kilometre and I could not wait to get out. I did however have to contend with this German guy in front of me who wanted to take photos every few metres. I must admit I was hoping for one stray snake to do its job. Still it could be worse. He could have been flatulent and obese.
My only battles recently have been the losing battle with traffic in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). I therefore decided to escape on a 5 day tour of the Mekong Delta, all the way to Phenom Penh in Cambodia. This was mainly by boat. This entailed exploring the main channels together with the smaller tributaries via rowing boat and small motor boat. I also got to tour around the little hamlets on a bicycle. This was truly like experiencing another world. People, lived, worked, breathed in the river and on a cold night, probably played scrabble on their boats. We passed a number of floating markets, boats selling a diversity of products: Papayas, melons, wood, chickens, chairs, double glazing, annuity bonds etc. Myself, a German girl and a guy from (would you believe it) Cheadle Hulme took a home-stay together on a Mekong island. They seemed decent ordinary people. In fact I met up with Tom from Cheadle Hulme only last night. You always meet eccentrics though. For example there is John from Canada, a 60 year old aging hippy whose answer to anything was to take his harmonica out and play. This was to the bemusement of the border control people in Cambodia.
So a couple of instrument free days followed for me in in Phenom Penh. This included the contrast of visiting the royal palce and a former school that was turned into a torture chamber during Pol Potts regime. Pretty heavy going but there is something quite likable about the city and it is more appealing than Ho Chi Minh. Despite the obligatory traffic hell, the place is littered with pagodas,l temples and parks. It is a modern city but seems to have one eye on the past. The begging is a bit intense though and the litter seems to pile high.
I felt that I needed some light relief hence I am now in Shihanoukville, the premier beach destination. Golden sand, beach bars, boat trips to a tropical island called Bamboo Island. I stayed on a beach called Serendipity. I seem to remember that the word is to do with fate resulting in good things happening. It did not quite happen with me and indeed a couple of nights ago it was looking ominous. I was drinking a couple of nights ago with a couple of guys who turned out to be gentlemen from the criminal fraternity. After a few beers - and after I had found this out I made my excuses and left. I will tell you the story when I get home.
To be continued.