I - What is water puppetry in Vietnam?
1 - The origin & development
This traditional form of art is recorded to have originated more than 10 centuries ago since 1010 (Ly Dynasty). Besides, it is closely associated with the working life of the people in the Red River delta since the day it began.
Water is a signature in this form of art, representing the ingenuity in the art creation of the working class by bringing the natural factors into the artistic life in order to reflect their emotional feelings. This form of art has been passed down from generation to generation, at the same time, Vietnamese water puppetry is constantly being innovated and developed by professional plots and plays combined with unique ethnic music. In the Northern Vietnamese villages in general, this is an inevitable part to be held on major festivals such as village festivals and Tet holidays.
2 - Historical & cultural values of Vietnamese water puppetry
Before the August Revolution, this form of art had not been properly appreciated in terms of its cultural, spiritual, and artistic values. It was simply considered a folk game for farmers in the countryside. Nevertheless, since the August Revolution, due to its unique identity, Vietnam water puppetry's position has been rapidly promoted from a folk art to a traditional art. Nowadays, it is at the same rank of “cheo” and “tuong” - top-class singing art forms in the Vietnamese theatre.
Each water puppet show has its own certain meaning. By watching it, you may understand more about the historical legends, customs, or traditional values of Vietnamese people which are inherited from generation to generation. Moreover, the tales of Vietnamese water puppetry full of convergence of thrilling and fascinating elements, comedies as well as sarcastic laughters might impress you. It is a fact that most of those who once watch the shows all have to praise the ingenuity and sophistication in this Vietnamese way of educating the next generation.
3 - The best water puppet show in Vietnam
Here are the top 5 puppet shows you should watch if you are prone to experience this art form once:
- “Tran Co Loa Thanh” which won several awards at the 1st International Marionette Festival held in Hanoi in 2008. The play retells the historical story in King An Duong Vuong era, making viewers feel moved.
- “Huyen Thoai Tien Rong” is a great water puppet show in Vietnam that won the silver medal at the 1st International Marionette Festival held in Hanoi in 2008. Its content is based on the legend of Au Co and Lac Long Quan, an ancient folk story about the origin of Vietnamese ethnic groups, praising the people’s solidarity in the way of building and protecting the country.
- “Linh Thieng Hai Tieng Dong Bao”: This Vietnamese water puppet show is imprinted with the roots, about the brotherhood of all peoples and living together for thousands of generations on the S-shaped strip of land. In 2012, the plays won the gold medal at the 3rd International Marionette Festival held in Hanoi.
- “Bay len tu mat nuoc”, which won the gold medal at the 4rd International Marionette Festival. The highlight of this water puppet show is spending a lot of time performing important excerpts of the classic ballet "Swan Lake" on the music of Tchaikovsky.
- “Tre - Coc” of The Vietnam National Puppetry Theater, representing a folk talk of Vietnamese Children. This play honorably won the gold medal at the 4rd International Marionette Festival in Hanoi in 2018.
II - The art of Vietnamese water puppetry
1 - Water puppet theatre & music
What distinguishes water puppetry from other forms of puppetry is the use of the water surface as a performance stage. The puppet chamber is erected in the middle of a pond or lake decorated with fans, flags, umbrellas, paper gates which accurately simulate the communal house in rural areas of Vietnam. Meanwhile, the stage, located in front of the chamber, is only truly completed when the water puppet show officially begins and disappears as soon as the final performance is over. This is also a point of interest that cannot be found in other performing arts of Vietnam.
In terms of music, Vietnamese water puppetry is an outdoor performing art so it needs strong music to keep the rhythm and promote a vibrant atmosphere. Thus, folk guilds use ethnic percussion instruments such as the bamboo tocsin, the drum, tomtom, the horn, the firecracker to create strong influence in the hearing of both viewers and performers. Water puppetry requires not only the ingenuity of controlling the puppets, but also the well association of music rhythm. Depending on the rhythm of the music, the artist will control the movement of puppets which can be quick or slow. Therefore, the French have recognised it as “the soul of the Vietnamese countryside”.
2 - The puppets & the artists of Vietnamese water puppetry
The puppets are carefully sculpted from fine wood, usually fig wood, then honed, polished and finally painted to reflect the shape and personality of each character. Puppets' shape is often very funny, colorful and especially very familiar to Vietnamese villagers. The very typical character in Vietnamese water puppetry that has to be mentioned is the narrator - Uncle Teu. With a round body and a witty smile, Uncle Teu has become one of the most popular characters in most of the shows.
A complete water puppet consists of 2 parts which are the body and the base. The body floats on the surface of the water and represents the characters in the story while the base submerges under the water surface and keeps it afloat as well as holds a movement controller of the puppet.
The artists of water puppetry standing in the chamber manipulate a pole or a string system to create movement for the puppet. The performance of the shows depends heavily on how successful the artists use it to describe the character's charisma in the story. As a result, the artisans also are the real artists. Their skillful hands surely make a great success for this special art form.
III - Top 3 places to enjoy Vietnamese water puppetry
1 - In Hanoi
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
Location: No.57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Show schedule:
+ Monday to Saturday: 13:45, 15:00, 16:10, 17:20, 18:30, 20:00, 21:15
+ Sunday: 09:30, 13:00, 15:00, 16:10, 17:20, 18:30, 20:00, 9:15
- Ticket price: 100,000 - 200,000 VND / person ($4.3 - 8.7)
- Contact: 024 38 249 494
- Website: http://thanglongwaterpuppet.com/
Lotus Water Puppet Center
- Location: No.16 Le Thai To Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Schedule: 15:30; 17:00; 18:30 from Monday to Sunday
- Ticket price: 80,000 - 100,000 VND / person ($3.4 - 4.3)
- Contact: 0972 03 04 20 - 024 3938 1173
2 - Enjoy water puppetry in Hoi An City
Hoi An Theater
- Location: No.548 Hai Ba Trung Street, Tan An Ward, Hoi An City
- Schedule: 18:30 from Monday to Saturday
- Ticket price: 80,000 VND/adults ($3.4) & 40,000 VND/children ($1.7)
3 - In Ho Chi Minh City
Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater
- Location: No.55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
- Schedule: 18:30 & 20:30
- Ticket price: 290,000 VND / person ($12.5)
- Website: http://goldendragonwaterpuppet.vn/
The History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City: this is one of the best places to enjoy Vietnamese water puppet show in Ho Chi Minh City
- Location: No.2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
- Schedule: 8:00 - 11:00 & 13:00 - 17:00 from Tuesday to Sunday
- Ticket price: 30,000 VND / person
- Contact: 028 3829 8146 - 3829 0268
- Website: http://www.baotanglichsutphcm.com.vn
Thao Dien Village
- Location: No.197, 197/1 Nguyen Van Huong Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
- Schedule: 19:30 - 20:00 every Saturday
- Contact: 0028 37442222
- Website: https://www.thaodienvillage.com
Note that at the display area in the above puppet theaters, a lot of nice souvenir puppets are available for sale at a wide range of prices.
Along with water puppetry, puppetry on land is also a very popular traditional folk art form, widely developed throughout the country. Puppetry on land has many different genres. Most of them use the rhythm of “Ca tru”, “Tuong”, “Cheo”, or Vietnamese court music during the performance.
That is a quick insight into Vietnamese water puppetry. Until now, this art form is still being preserved, maintained and developed incessantly, therefore, not only Vietnamese people but all friends around the world can have the chance to learn about this unique art form.