Thursday, October 20, 2005

I know queue!

The queue is a fairly unfamiliar and untidy concept in Vietnam but standing at the back Teddy de Burca Jnr. is ready to get stuck in, boots and all

At Hanoi train station I stand three people back from the counter, waiting in turn like everyone else, to be served in due course. But others drift in and merge into the sides of the queue ahead of me – like molecules of mercury rolling onto a greater mass – and suddenly I’m playing back row in a scrum for tickets to Danang.

Now, these sneaky rascals may believe the foreign man is too polite or insignificant to be worth considering but in my younger, more athletic days, I played a bit of rugby and learnt how to ruck and maul with the big boys.

So, I gently lean in on the two tallish Vietnamese boys ahead – let’s just call them my lock forwards – and scythe into the middle of the pack, before rolling off on the inside of the flanker, a slightly plucky but tigerish middle-aged woman.

Her little elbows dig into my stomach, and if either of the two boys are pickpockets I’ll be taken to the cleaners but, at least, now I’m within a stretch of the ticket salesperson – a woman who at first glance appears to have missed the joys of spring since life began on earth.

Now, I must use the power of “Oi” – invented by someone at the back of the queue, I hazard to guess. Perhaps, I even have an advantage speaking the local lingo with my comical lilt.

And sure enough, her little ears prick up at my mangled pronunciation of “Chi oi, toi den day truoc ma!” (I came here first!). For a moment, the pack stops squirming; she looks up at my flushed hopeful head, suddenly grins and announces, with an air of triumph – “Mr Bean.”

Not someone I aspire to emulate, but ne’ertheless, at least, now, I have her attention. “Yes, I’m Mr Bean, and I’d like a ticket to Danang.”

“Mr Bean is going to Danang,” she shouts out to anyone who’ll listen. Then we scoot through a rapid series of questions concerning both my personal life and ticket specifications. Everyone around listens in, as though we were all now having an impromptu press conference.

The conclusion – Mr Bean is not married, he wants a soft sleeper, he has no children, he wants to return in a week, his clothes are quite ugly and he would prefer a lower bunk bed. We would also recommend he select a local wife.

After all that, with my personal life and ticket details made public, the total comes to VND495,000. There is a slight drawing of breath behind my ear as I withdraw my wallet, a shiver of anticipation and more than a smidgen of wonder – just how fat is his wallet going to be?

The answer is not very, I realise, with the panache of Mr Bean himself, I’ve left my cash at home. I blurt this out and swivel, and slip back through the queue-slash-scrum – now well over a dozen people are heaving onto the counter – to avoid being ridiculed. But there’s no escaping that easy.
“Mr Bean forgot his wallet,” roars the ticket woman, much to everyone’s amusement.

I look back over my shoulder. Everyone is laughing and pointing at me (affectionately). I suppose, I can console myself that it could very well be the happiest queue in the country at this very moment in time, who knows, maybe even the world.

I also notice, slipping out the door that the plucky little woman has slipped to the front while no one is concentrating. No doubt about it – with that competitive spirit she’d make a fine wee flanker on the rugby pitch.


james sycamore said...

My friends will be "lining up" to read this story. Thanks for the memories.

yorkie said...

At the train station counter in Hanoi, one time the person behind me was pushing onto me and I turned around to yell at them and discovered it was a Japanese tourist - suppose they're used to cramped train station scenarios, eh James? Ever been shoved back on to the metro with a stick in Tokyo or fondled for that matter?

Venitha said...

Very nice story. Tales of such uncivilized behavior make the queue jumpers here in Singapore seem so tame. Can't believe how annoying it is, but good to know it could be (and is) worse. I guess.

james sycamore said...

Sticked, no. Fondled, no, but narrowly missed being stung by a wasp once. My last-second evasive manouvres meant the woman beside me was stung instead. My Japanese is limited at the best of times, and in this situation all I could think of saying was, "Poor you".