Tradition plays a huge part in Vietnamese life. Its culture has been formed over many centuries and religion in its various forms, Buddhism and respect for ancestors is something that has never faded. On a more practical level, skills have been handed down through generations as well and one of the popular forms of entertainment that visitors to Vietnam can enjoy is water puppetry. It is thought to have developed in the Red River Delta region of Northern Vietnam as long ago as the 11th Century. There may have been some changes but the shows that tourists travelling in Vietnam can enjoy in its capital, Hanoi, owe much to the past. You may find that a show is part of your Vietnam tour package but if it isn’t a Hanoi travel agency will arrange things for you.
The puppets, sometimes weighing up to 15 kilos, are made of wood before being lacquered. Shows take place in a pool that is waist deep with the surface of the water being the stage. Puppets supported by a bamboo stick, seem to move over the water during the show; the puppeteers incidentally are behind a screen all the time controlling the puppets movement. There may be as many as 8 puppeteers incidentally.
Over the years, water puppet performances were a form of entertainment in villages everywhere. The village pond was a great stage though performers who travelled around the country often took a tank with them and filled it up before a show. It is thought the original ‘’venues’’ for water puppetry were the rice fields after they had been flooded.
A traditional orchestra plays background music as the show goes on; drums, bells, bamboo flutes, cymbals, horns and of course vocals. The singers tell the story of the show which is likely to be a folk tale that has been handed down over the years. There are stories of daily village life, farming as well as fishing, as well as legends from the past.
The show to see in Hanoi takes place close to Hoan Kiem Lake, the ‘’Lake of the Returned Sword’’ and that is a legend in itself and one of the stories that the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre tells. King Le Loi was given a sword by the Gods to fight against the invading Chinese. Once he had defeated them he returned the sword to the Lake and the Gods. The Lake is popular with locals and tourists alike, not only for the shows but the lovely setting. The shows here have been performed for many years and there are perhaps 500 shows each year in front of audiences of up to a few thousand.
Water Puppetry has been introduced to other parts of Asia and indeed shows have been held even further away. To see the originals however you should decide on a holiday in Vietnam and go to the show in Hanoi, the capital of the country where it all began.