As a rule, once hearing the drums or firecrackers exploding, the villagers flock to the manipulation pavilion – Thuy Dinh. Old, young, men, women, children, artisans, merchants, and peasants from everywhere, all hurried gathered in front of the stage to watch the spectacle of water puppet performance, a tradition that dates back more than ten centuries, but still attracts the Vietnamese.
The manipulation pavilion – Thuy Dinh, for water puppet performance – Photo credit @amasiatravel
History of Vietnamese water puppet theatre
Before becoming a tradition for all Vietnamese, the art of water puppet theatre was mostly practised by farmers in the Red River Delta and midland areas in the North of Vietnam. Water puppet theatre is usually performed at festivals, village ceremonies and New Year’s celebrations. The art of water puppet theatre is practised from one generation to another, gradually becoming an elegant hobby of the people of Vietnam under the Ly Dynasty and then transmitted to now. Today’s water puppetry is considered an intangible cultural heritage of the people of Vietnam.
Water puppet – Photo credit @amasiatravel
The techniques of Water Puppet Theatre
The puppets which are called by puppeteers “con tro” are made of old fig wood, very light and soft. The wooden puppets are chiselled with stylized lines then separated filing, polishing, and decorated with different coloured paint to reflect more personality of each character.
Water puppet theatre is an art performed by puppets on the water, magically combining two elements of puppets and water. This art requires technical proficiency and artistic sophistication. Manipulation machinery and techniques are very important in creating movable parts of puppets on the stage. This is the key to state-of-the-art of water puppetry.
Unlike other types of performances, puppetry artists do not appear on the stage. The puppeteers stand in the manipulation pavilion to manoeuvre the puppets. They manipulate each pole or pull the puppets with a system of strings and poles underwater. Performances generally require the attendance of 11 puppeteers.
Water puppetry artists in a performance – Photo credit @amasiatravel
Water puppet theatre is an original entertainment
The water puppet theatre is not providing a history of art, why else talk about art? It is above all, for the spectators, a moment of delightful entertainment. The shown characters are the villagers, but also animals or even magical creatures. Each has its own identity. Water puppetry is close to the everyday life of the people and contributed to the spread of knowledge production, education, patriotism, morality, and reason for living for all walks of life, and deserves a unique art unique in the world.
If you attend a performance, you will see the skilfully carved statues come to life before your eyes, in scenarios dealing with everyday life or resuming ancestral legends. Percussion, flutes, cymbals, horns, and monochord (Dan Bau) set the pace and tone of the piece and make it a pleasant musical moment.
Music band in the water puppet theatre – Photo credit @amasiatravel
Places to see water puppet theatre
There are a few places in Vietnam where you will find some of the last remaining water puppet workshops. Dao Thuc village on the outskirts of Hanoi and Hong Quang village in Nam Dinh are places to explore and learn about the making of puppets. Across the country, there are several water puppet theatres presenting performances. Below are some of the best places to enjoy a show:
- Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, 57B Đinh Tien Hoang St., Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- Vietnam Puppet Theatre, 361 Truong Chinh St., Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi
- Hoi An Theatre, 548 Hai Ba Trung St., Hoi An
- Hue Water Puppet Theatre, 8 Le Loi St., Vinh Ninh District, Hue
- Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St., District 1, HCMC
- Museum of Vietnamese History (outdoor), 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem St., District 1, HCMC
The water puppet performance – Photo credit @amasiatravel