Vietnam’s water puppet theatre dates back to the 11th century, and this thriving art form has moved from rural lakes to royal courts, big town theatres and international arts festivals… entertaining packed houses with its timeless themes.
A hush falls over the darkened house as a comical farmer sporting high pigtails and a broad smile glides across the watery stage to introduce a show backed by a traditional orchestra. This is Teu, the most popular of Vietnam’s water puppet characters; what follows is a riveting spectacle packed with marionettes that move on a watery stage with a lifelike fluidity that belies their wooden bodies. The secret to their agility lies beneath the water.
In the Red River Delta where water is essential to wet rice cultivation, an exceptional puppetry tradition known as mua roi nuoc has emerged. Manipulating a colorful cast of villagers, mythical creatures and legendary characters gracefully in makeshift pavilions on lakes, ponds and flooded paddy fields, skilled puppeteers have been captivating audiences for centuries.
To learn more about this fascinating tradition, we journey 40km from the heart of Hanoi, past muddy construction sites and Tet holiday markets hawking pots of peach blossoms, mandarin oranges and kumquats to the place where it all began: the Chua Thay Pagoda in Sai Son village, Thach That district.
In the 1lth century, the Chua Thay Pagoda was built by the sainted Buddhist monk Tu Dao Hanh on the banks of the Long Tri Lake. Hailed as a supernatural being and genius, he breathed life into Vietnam’s first water puppets. In the 17th century, a charming water pavilion, Thuy Dinh, was erected on the serene Long Tri Lake near the pagoda and this became the first permanent water puppet pavilion.
Centuries after Tu Dao Hanh’s passing, he is still revered as the father of Vietnamese water puppets and during the Thay Pagoda Festival, held on the third month of the lunar calendar, water puppet shows are staged at Thuy Dinh in honor of his artistic contributions to Vietnamese folk heritage – a heritage that has become one of Hanoi’s major tourist attractions.
Families of artisans
Not far from the hauntingly beautiful water pavilion lies the farming village of Chang Son and it’s known for its water-puppet- making industry. Do Phi Thuong, a 41-year-old carpenter, has been carving water puppets from durable fig wood since he was seven. While his family has been in the business for more than 300 years, there are families in his village who have kept this art form alive for over 700 years. Each family has its own well-guarded secrets.
In the past, water puppetry guilds swore their members to secrecy, and initiated them in solemn blood drinking rituals to preserve their enigmatic traditions. Girls were not allowed entry for fear that if they married outside the village, they would give away these secrets. Today, Do Phi Thuong holds weekly workshops to pass on his craft to the next generation in his family, the girls included.
Wood from 30- to 40-year-old fig trees is selected for its light, water-resistant and resilient properties. Once the wood is chopped into suitable sizes, stripped of its bark and hollowed to make it lighter, it’s whittled into puppets and fitted with strings and rods or attached to long bamboo poles and complicated mechanisms.
To prevent cracks in the wood, puppets are glazed with several coats of Vietnamese paint – a concoction of clay, leaves (to give it color) and lacquer (to water-proof it). The puppets are then polished with a pebble, scrubbed with a colored stone in water and brushed with layers of delicate silver sheets to attain a shine that reflects light.
According to Do Phi Thuong, a single set of water puppets comprising 200 characters takes about three months to complete and can fetch a hefty price of US$60,000! Looking at the shabby narrow alleys that make up Chang Son, you wouldn’t think that the puppet-makers here were engaged in such lucrative business, but we soon learn just how great the demand for water puppets is.
Behind the bamboo blinds
Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre fronting the Hoan Kiem Lake, which has been staging water-puppet shows since 1969, boasts a cast of 136 puppets. While fig wood puppets should last for at least 100 years, daily wear-and-tear takes its toll, and the theatre goes through four sets of puppets in a single year. With five shows a day and hardly any time to dry off, it’s no wonder!
As Teu disappears behind the bamboo blinds, fantastical dragons glide across the gleaming water, phoenixes court and mate, playful unicorns pounce on a ball sending a spray of water across the pond and a king returns a magical sword that helped him defeat his enemies to a giant turtle out on a lake. But the show isn’t all about fantastical legends and mythical beasts; while the repertoire of the Vietnamese water puppet theatre includes 157 stories and legends, a great number of these tales revolve around rural life and the values of honest labor and perseverance.
Just peek into any of Thang Long Theatre’s packed shows and you’ll notice that the audience comprises mostly of tourists because this form of puppetry crosses language barriers with action-packed visuals that appeal to just about everyone. The skits are fast-paced and full of energetic splashing, not to mention detailed and realistic movements, like the cheeky flick of a sleek fish tail and sprightly leap of a frog.
Bringing the puppets to life
While skilled puppet-makers fashion the mechanisms that allow for movement, the puppets’ graceful motions are attributed to the puppeteers who stand concealed behind bamboo blinds, chest-deep in water, skillfully maneuvering each puppet to tell a story.
According to Mr. Tuan, Director of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, his troupe of puppeteers comprises performing arts graduates who train with the theatre to master each puppet’s elaborate movements. A single show is performed by 12 to 14 puppeteers who work in unison in the darkened theatre. On average, the water puppets used are 65cm tall and weigh just over 3kg manipulating them from a distance with long bamboo poles and rods submerged underwater is quite a feat.
Mr. Tuan reveals that one of the most difficult sequences to execute is the Fairy Dance in which eight faeries manned by 10 puppeteers dance in precise harmony. For this, the puppeteers have to be patient in order to master the detailed movements and synchronize with other puppeteers to make everything seamless.
In the past, before theatres elevated water puppetry to the world stage, puppeteers were simple farmers who indulged in the art form for recreation in makeshift pavilions. These robust artisans have left a rich inheritance that lives on as an enduring folk art enjoyed the world over.
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THANG LONG WATER PUPPET THEATRE
Shows are usually packed, so get your tickets early at the theatre located in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district or call +844 3825 5450 for reservations. Show times: 4pm, 5.15pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 9.15pm. Tickets: VND60,000 (first class) and VND40,000 (second class) www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org
THAY PAGODA FESTIVAL
For fantastic water puppet shows held at Vietnam’s first water pavilion, don’t miss the Thay Pagoda Festival! Dates: March 5, 6 and 7. Venue: Chua Thay Pagoda, Thach That district, Hanoi.
Getting there: AirAsia operates direct daily flights to Hanoi, Vietnam from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Bangkok, Thailand. Book your flight and accommodation now at www.airasia.com.