We were in fits of giggles from the appearance of the first water puppet on stage. As the puppet shot across the stage, alternately raising one arm after the other in quick succession, to the cries of hectic musical accompaniment, my brother hissed “Look! It’s Matt after three beers!”
Humorous similarities aside, water puppet shows are a traditional but fun-filled art form in Vietnam and the puppeteers are revered and referred to as artists. Over 400 stories are told through Vietnamese puppetry and one of the best places to see the puppets is the Thang Long Water Puppets Theatre in Hanoi, on the north eastern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake.
|Water Puppets Orchestra, Vietnam|
With an orchestra just offstage providing the music, singing and some dialect the puppets owned the stage. Water puppets are wooden puppets that perform on a stage of water. As they cavort around the stage they flick water at each other and animal puppets such as fish and dragons dive in and out of the water. They are masterfully controlled by unseen puppeteers that stand in waist-deep water behind a screen.
|Water Puppets with ducks, just before the fox strikes, Vietnam|
The wooden water puppets are very endearing and come in many forms. Amongst others, people, fish, dragons, ducks, frogs, foxes, phoenixes and turtles. They tell traditional stories depicting life in Vietnam, such as a boy playing his flute while herding buffalo, agricultural work, catching frogs and foxes, and fishing, all with a serving of good humour. They also tell the tales of local legends such as the dance of the phoenix (which is a sacred animal in Vietnam) and the tale of the turtle god in a Hanoi lake reclaiming the sword given to the leader of the resistance by the gods.
|Water Puppets, Vietnam|
As the little puppets moved excitably around the water stage, and water flew everywhere, I couldn’t help but smile. I watched keenly as foxes climbed trees and the human puppets chased fish, intrigued at how they were controlled. The secret was never shared, but it must be through a series of platforms beneath the surface of the water. I wish I knew, but left thinking perhaps it is more magical not to know.
|Puppeteers, Water Puppets, Vietnam|
Vietnam’s traditional water puppet show is a fun way to learn some of Vietnam’s stories and traditions. The performance lasts about an hour and is well worth the inexpensive ticket price.
If you fall in love with a puppet you can also buy your favourite character as a souvenir. They are sold at many shops around Vietnam.
Have you seen a water puppet show in Vietnam? What did you think?