Puppeteers have delighted audiences across Asia for centuries, but in Vietnam this folk tradition has a special twist: Both the puppeteers and their lacquered wooden puppets perform in chest-deep water.
Working from behind a bamboo screen, the puppet masters control their subjects via long rods and strings, moving them along the liquid surface as they depict heroic fables or daily farm life, often with a humorous slant.
We recently watched one troupe of water puppets in action on a pond at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi as part of Viking Cruises’ “Magnificent Mekong” itinerary. Fire-breathing dragons and beautiful princesses, sturdy buffalo and huge tortoises, hard-working farmers and guileless fishermen all glided across a watery stage, accompanied by a band of musicians sounding drums, gongs, bells and flutes.
The flotilla of buoyant puppets and props depicted tales that grandparents had handed down to their grandchildren for generations, and local families as well as tourists delighted in the creation of a floating world.
The tradition dates back to the 11th century in northern Vietnam. Once the rice was harvested, performers would use the flooded paddies to entertain their fellow villagers.
The tradition dates back to the 11th century in villages of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. Once the rice was harvested, performers would use the flooded paddies to entertain their fellow villagers, enduring hours of standing in cold water. Chest waders prevail today, as water puppetry has been revived in 300 villages across the north.
In Hanoi, several troupes work their magic, with daily performances at both the museum (www.vme.org.vn) and the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org). Water puppet replicas are abundant in the shops in Hanoi’s vibrant Old Quarter.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre has brought the tradition to the south, staging evening performances in Ho Chi Minh City (www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com.vn).