Of all the art forms that are unique to the country, perhaps the most exclusive one in Vietnam is water puppetry.
The time when water puppetry first appeared is still debated among scholars who rely on different materials, from legends to historical documents and stone steles.
Some believe that water puppetry came into being in 225 B.C. Others assert the art appeared and evolved under the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225). The debate might never be resolved, but it is agreed that the villages of the Red River Delta that teem with lakes and ponds are the birthplace of water puppetry.
An inscription on the Sung Thien Linh stone stele built in Choi pagoda in Nam Ha province (now Long Doi Son pagoda in the northern province of Ha Nam) that dates back to 1121 contains a passage describing a water puppetry performance: “ Let out a golden turtle bearing three mounts on the flicking water. Swimming in the gentle river, it displayed its shell and four legs. It glanced upon the bank before looking down at the image of the blue sky in the water. The hazardous cliffs were exposed in exultant melodies. A cave door opened, Gods and fairies appeared…Flocks of precious birds sang and danced along with gentle animals.”
The stele also reveals that water puppetry performances used to be one of the ceremonies held to celebrate the kings’ longevity.
In the old days, the ponds and lakes where crowds gathered during festivals formed the stage for water puppet shows. Nowadays, the shows are performed in artificial ponds on special theatres.
The puppets are carved out of a special wood and coated with waterproof paints in different colors. Each puppet, is less than 5o centimeters high an has its own posture. The posture, along with facial features, expressions and customs depend on the character. Each puppet can be said to be a work of art, a small sculpture that comes to life in the hands of the puppeteer.
The puppet has two parts: the body which is seen above the water and the base which is submerged under water. The latter is attached to a system that helps puppeteers, who stands waist-deep in the water, manipulate the puppets.
The water serves not only to hide the manipulating system but also to create an animated stage, puppets suddenly appear in the agitated water, travel, dance and even “fly” before sinking back into water.
Humor and symbolism are constant features in water puppetry.
While the traditional repertoire consists of around 30 numbers, there are hundreds of modern ones that retell folk tales passed through generations, as well those that depict the daily lives of Vietnamese people.
Popular water puppetry performances are extracts from folk tales like Thach Sanh, Tam Cam (heroes’ fighting invaders and developing country). The scenes of forming, fishing , festival events such as dragon dance, lion dance, wrestling, fights and buffalo-fights are also welcomed by the audience with warm applause.
Although it has moved from its mooring in rural areas to urban stages, and performances are usually held in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, there is mo gainsaying this unique art form is a tangible cultural heritage that belongs to the Vietnamese people as a whole.
- The Vietnam Puppetry Theatre: 361 Truong Chinh Street, Thanh Xuan district, Hanoi
- The Thang Long Puppetry Theatre: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Hanoi
- The Hue Citadel Water Puppetry Theatre : 8 Le Loi Street, Hue City
- The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre: 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, HCMC
Written and contributed by vietnamvacation