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The Art of Water Puppetry in Vietnam

Though water puppetry (múa rối nước) appeared more than 4000 years ago all across the world, it originated from the Red River Delta region in northern Vietnam. While Vietnamese theater is heavily influenced by Chinese opera and comprises different genres such as cải lương, hát tuồng, and hát chèo, it is no exaggeration to say that water puppetry is the most indigenous cultural trait of Vietnam. Let’s explore this unique traditional Vietnamese art form with Exotic Voyages.

- The origin of Water Puppetry

Historians believe that water puppetry originated from wet rice civilization in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam during Ly dynasty (1010-1225). The first evidence for this art form is a piece of writing in “Sung Thien Dien Linh” stone stele, dated from the kingdom of Ly Nhan Tong. Firstly, water puppet shows were just a communal performance during harvest time but then it had gradually become an entertaining activity for the Royals, especially in anniversaries and celebrations. 

- Performance of Water Puppet

One outstanding difference between water puppetry and land puppetry is the set-up of the stage. The water puppet theatre’s stage, usually 4 meters square, which is called “thủy đình” (“thủy” means nước, “đình” is a communal house) is a large submerged pool, with a curtain in the middle separating the actors from the front-end of the performance. The level of water is kept waist-deep of the puppeteers so that they can manipulate the puppets behind. Long bamboo poles and a string system are used underwater to steer the puppets through their various actions. This tradition derives from rice fields flooding and back then people used such water puppetry as entertainment. 

The water puppets themselves are carved out of a special type of wood, which can easily float on the water. They are made based on the human shape, polished and decorated with meticulous details, painted with vivid colors to highlight their own characters and finally coated in lacquer. Most of the puppets look pretty, cheerful, humorous, and symbolic. It’s interesting to note that each puppet can weigh as much as around 15 kilograms!

Various shapes of water puppet in Vietnam (Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay)

The special character which appears in almost every water puppet shows is “Chu Teu” or “Mr. Teu” (Teu means “laugh” in ancient Vietnamese). Like his name, he is the one that brings a lot of laughs during a water puppet performance. Firstly it is because of his look as he is often bigger with whiter and pinker complexion and a fat belly. Chu Teu is the most talkative and cheerful character in the show, therefore, he sometimes acts as a narrator, sometimes as a commentator. Chu Teu has many things in common with locals in Northern Vietnam, who are a little bit chatty and whose life is attached to an agricultural society.

(Image by Thomas Gerlach from Pixabay)

Besides the puppets themselves, the greatest contributor to a successful performance is no doubt the artists. They control the puppets from a central space called “buong tro”, which is hidden by a bamboo curtain that goes down to the water level. Not only making movements to the rough sculptures, but the puppeteers also breathe new life into every action of the puppets by their excellent storytelling skills.

Also playing an essential role in a water puppet show, the traditional Vietnamese orchestra is poised on a raised platform overlooking the watery stage. Instruments which are played include drums and horns, wooden bells and cymbals, monochords and gongs, as well as bamboo flutes and vocals. Different instruments are used, depending on what is occurring during the scene.

- Stories in water puppet performances

Performances are rural-themed, and usually tell stories about significant Vietnamese folklore, legends, and national history. Despite several similarities in the plot as worldwide famous Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, Vietnamese folk tales hold the essence of Tonkin area, from cultural surroundings with banyan trees, communal houses to time-honored cultural activities like dragon dance, traditional competitions like buffalo fighting… Therefore, watching a water puppet show is an opportunity for visitors to visualize the old days of the rich Tonkin culture.

- Where to Enjoy Authentic Water Puppet Performance

There are approximately 30 shows in the Vietnamese treasure of water puppet. Greatest and most professional puppet art troupes operate mostly in big cities like Hanoi, Saigon, Hai Phong, Hoi An.

1. Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, Hanoi:

Opened in 1969, Thang Long Water Puppet Theater should be the most well-known place to hold water puppet shows. The theater nestles in a small corner of Dinh Tien Hoang street, facing the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. There are up to 6 performances per day with translation headphones upon request. Private performances are also available if visitors would like some privacy. Ticket price ranges from about US$ 5 - 9. There will be a surcharge for camera use. Do not hesitate to contact our experts for the event calendar and private shows.

Address: 57B, Dinh Tien Hoang street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi

 

2. Vietnam National Puppet Theater, Hanoi

Located in a less central area of Hanoi, Vietnam National Puppetry Theater seems to be the largest water puppet theater in Vietnam. This theater covers an area of more than 7000 meters square in Truong Chinh Street, Thanh Xuan District. In recent years, traditional and contemporary shows as well as stage and water puppet plays have been combined to be more attractive to the audience. Some art works such as Hồn quê (The Country Soul), Anderson Fairy Tale, The Mysterious Dream of Tễu and Kangaroo, White Space, and Da Trach Love Story have brought a fresh air to traditional water puppetry.

Address: 361 Truong Chinh, Thanh Xuan, Hanoi

3. Hoi An Theater, Hoi An

Though Hoi An Theater is not as big as the other, water puppeteers put a great deal of effort into every show. Each detail from content to the set-up is elaborated so that the audience can have a deeper look into the artistic aspect of Vietnam in general and Hoi An in particular. The art of water puppet shows in Hoi An with many elaborately choreographed through the performance of professional and experienced artists together with careful investment in content, water theatre’s stage, puppets, sound and light system will help visitors immerse in the traditional culture of Vietnam.

Address: 548 Hai Ba Trung – Hoi An
Event calendar: 18:30 every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

 

4. Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, Saigon

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater is situated in District 1, right in the middle of Saigon. There are nearly 600 seats for each 50-minute performance. All the shows are held in the evening, continuously from 5 PM to 8.30 PM. If you travel in a group, it’s better to ask travel experts to set daytime performance in advance.

Address: 55B Nguyen Minh Khai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh

5. Water Puppetry at Local Artist Hous

Not like other professional water puppetry shows in these theaters mentioned above, the plays held in this local house are much smaller in scale. However, this is a great chance for anyone who likes to have a local touch.  Mr. Liem - a screenwriter and contributor to the research and creation of water puppetry - is the 7th generation of a family that works in this traditional art form. He has brought this ancient art across the country border to other foreign cultures. After watching the performance, tourists are offered a unique experience by visiting his puppets’ collection, learning how to make a puppet and even trying to manipulate them. You will soon realize that making a puppet moving as you see on the stage is harder than you have ever imagined before. This unique experience is a perfect choice for families as many kids really enjoy playing with the puppets.

Water Puppetry is a precious intangible value of Vietnam which is suitable for all types of travelers. Whether you are looking for a sense of cultural heritage or you are travelling as a family and your child wants something cheerful, water puppet shows in Vietnam are worth a visit. If you are visiting Vietnam, do not miss a chance to pay a visit to one of these water puppet theaters, or you can contact us for a private show.

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