Water puppetry is one of the country’s oldest traditions, dating back to the 10th century in the villages of the Red River Delta, Northern Vietnam. It has entertained millions throughout the years with many more across the globe being introduced to Vietnam’s unique puppet performance.
About a century ago, animism played a major role in the lives of rural Vietnamese. In order to satisfy the ‘rice paddy spirits’, the farmers created water puppetry. Not having much at their disposal, the farmers improvised and used the rice paddies and nearby ponds as the stage. The water also turned out to be an excellent medium at concealing the puppet master’s string mechanism. It was also great at creating effects like splashes and waves which added excitement to the shows.
Water puppeteers have kept their techniques a secret throughout the centuries. Even today, villagers would use codes names to refer to certain maneuver. In the past, rural puppet masters suffered from cold waters during winter, water-borne diseases and leeches. Eventually, the farmers countered with a fish sauce or green tea remedy which regulated body heat as well as waterproof boots to keep leeches out.
A typical water puppet show consists of a stage filled with water, usually around waist-high. The puppeteers stand behind a split-bamboo screen that is usually decorated to resemble a temple façade. The puppet masters manipulate the marionettes using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms that are concealed underneath the water. Spotlights and colorful flags further adorn the stage, creating a festive atmosphere during a performance.
The puppets are carved out of wood and then lacquered. They are about half a meter tall and often weigh up to 15 kilograms. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra accompanies the performance, providing background music to the program. In addition, a North Vietnamese choir (or sometimes an individual singer) sings out the story that is being acted out by the puppets on stage. The puppets may also ‘interact’ with the orchestra and singers, with the musicians usually acting out as the marionette’s subconscious or adviser.
The theme and setting of these water puppet shows are usually rural with a strong reference to Vietnamese folklore. Scenes of everyday life such as the harvest, fishing and festivals are regular themes as well as famous legends or myths. Wry wit is common in these shows, putting a humorous twist on common day-to-day life and activities.
Not only is a water puppet show entertaining, its depictions of day-to-day life and folklore is also educating. After exploring Hanoi’s many cultural and historic sites on A Day Charming & Historic Hanoi – Hanoi day trip, you can sit back and enjoy a water puppet performance later that evening. Designed to coincide with the 1000 year anniversary of Hanoi, Exotissimo’s Celebrate 1000 Years of Hanoi History tour takes you on an in-depth exploration of the capital. The program covers the past millennium, from the Ly dynasty of 1010 to more recent events. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like to tweak any of our tours.
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