If you are ever in Hanoi it will be regretful to miss the Water Puppet Theater - even if you think you are not a puppet kind of person. Water Puppets literally means “puppets that dance on the water”. This show is not just geared for kids, but meant to delight adults as well. A visit to one of Vietnam’s unique water puppet shows is an entertaining way to get closer to the country’s culture and heritage.
During the 11th-century Ly dynasty, before a series of dykes was built, the Red River would swell each year, bursting its banks and flooding much of the region. This annual flooding of the lowlands inspired a form of entertainment that is found only in Vietnam, namely water puppetry (mua roi nuoc).
The flooded paddies were the perfect platform to conceal both the puppeteer and the long bamboo poles used to control the puppet. Gradually, these theatrical events transferred to the small ponds and lakes beside the communal houses (dinh) found in a typical 11th-century Vietnamese village.
Today, the puppeteers still perform in a chest-deep pool of water but behind a curtain on stage. The water is kept deliberately murky so as to obscure the poles and mechanics used to control the puppets, which are protected from the elements by a layer of lacquer. The puppets usually range from 30 to 100cm (12 to 39ins) in height and weigh from 1 to 5kg (2 to 11lbs). Larger puppets can weigh up to 20kg (44lbs) and need four people to manipulate them.
As its origins and themes hark back to farming communities in feudal times, water puppetry is not merely enjoyable theatre, but also portrays part of Vietnamese culture. A performance will consist of 12 to 18 acts, each telling a mythological story about Vietnam and its history, while a small ensemble of traditional musicians and cheo singers provides background music. One story, for example, tells of how a tortoise living in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake supposedly emerged from the depths to provide King Ly Thai To with the sword he needed to fight off Chinese invaders.
Characters can be heroic, legendary or mythical, but most are ordinary peasants with plot lines that tend to be action-oriented as the puppets are unable to convey emotional conflicts. The water’s surface also reflects what is taking place: calm and serene when fairies sing and dance, but a heaving tempest when a battle breaks out with fire-spitting dragons.
In an attempt to win over modern-day audiences, some scriptwriters have adjusted traditional plots. The Hong Phong puppet troupe from Hai Duong province, for example, has adapted a story called The Frog Sues Heaven, in which a thief sneaks into a Buddhist pagoda under the cover of a dark and stormy night and steals antique statues, aiming to sell them to overseas buyers. The thief is caught, and after a quick trial under Article 272 of the Criminal Code he is dispatched to jail for three years.
Water puppetry dropped off the radar during the Vietnam War but was revived in the 1980s. While it took time to redevelop the art form due to a lack of numbers and poor facilities, thanks to Vietnam’s booming tourism industry, water puppetry has found its way back onto the stage.