Of Lakes, Lore and Vietnamese Puppets

Discovering the traditional art of water puppetry in Hanoi.  
Water Puppets
The hour-long water puppet shows at Thang Long theatre are held daily. Photo by: Reed Kaestner/Getty Images

The clanging of cymbals and plaintive notes of a flute accompanied the fairy puppets that emerged from behind the pagoda-like screen. A singer crooned a Vietnamese ballad dedicated to the fairy goddess, Âu Cơ, believed to be the ancestor of the Vietnamese people. The two-foot-high wooden puppets held candles, their rhythmic dance changing with the tempo of the music and their movements very much like that of kathak dancers. It was an impressive performance, but what made it extra-ordinary was the fact that the stage in front of the screen was a pool of water.

Puppetry is part of most Asian cultures, be it the kathputlis of India, the bunrakus of Japan or Múa rõi nước the shadow puppets of Bali. Water puppetry is indigenous to Vietnam, and has been promoted enthusiastically in recent times. The tradition is thought to have emerged as a form of entertainment for the spirits that people believed controlled the ebb and flow of rivers, as well as for villagers coming home after a hard day’s work. It can be traced back to the 11thcentury, to the villages of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. A temple, supposedly built between the 12th to 15th centuries, in the village of Bảo Hà in Hải Phòng province has statues which move with the help of concealed mechanics, similar to the way water puppets do, leading to the belief that the village is the birthplace of the art form. Traditionally, ponds and flooded rice paddy fields after harvest were stages for these communal shows, with villagers standing in waist-deep water to manoeuvre the puppets.

Of Lakes, Lore and Vietnamese Puppets

The puppets enact folk tales and mythological scenes such as the dance of the fairies, children of Âu Cơ, who is the mother goddess of the Vietnamese. Photo by: Gerhard Zwerger-Schoner/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

Carved out of fig wood and coated with lacquer, these figurines weigh anywhere between 5 to 15 kilos. A long rod attached to the base or back of the puppet is used to steer them over the water. Today, water puppet shows are conducted in special stages in theatres indoors and puppeteers usually stand behind the screen—usually fashioned to look like the facade of a pagoda—and manoeuvre their puppets. Performances are usually accompanied by a live orchestra of drums, cymbals, horns and flutes as well as singers of chèo, a traditional Vietnamese opera. Each theatrical piece is different and depicts various things from scenes of rural life to folk tales and mythological stories.

I experienced my first water puppet performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre near the Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi. Established in 1969, it is one of the country’s oldest theatres and has trained many generations of puppeteers. The pool is centre stage, the lights lending it a shimmering unearthly aura. Flanking the stage are balconies where the singers and musicians sit, dressed in colourful áo dài, traditional silk tunics worn over trousers.

The show began with a performance by the drummers, followed by the arrival of the Teu, the jester-narrator. The Teu, very much like the sutradhaar of Indian theatre forms, keeps reappearing to introduce characters and plots. The performance was in Vietnamese, as is traditionally done, and while music often transcends the barriers of language, I wished for a way to translate the jester’s and characters’ jokes, most of which were lost on the largely non-Vietnamese crowd.

Stories changed from the everyday to the fantastical. A common, and one of the longest, stories performed in water puppet shows is that of the Hoan Kiem Lake, right by the Thang Long theatre. It speaks of a 15th-century Vietnamese hero Lê Lợi who led a revolt against the Chinese Ming empire and was assisted by an enchanted sword. His sword was eventually claimed by the Golden Tortoise God of this very lake and since then it has been known as Hoan Keim, the Lake of the Returned Sword.

Of Lakes, Lore and Vietnamese Puppets 2

Fig wood and clay from the Red River are used to create the two-foot-tall puppets, which are then hand-painted with vegetable dyes (Top: left, middle, right); Puppeteers stand behind a screen and use the rods attached to the puppets to manoeuvre the figurines to perform complex movements on water (Bottom: left, right). Photos by: Robertus Pudyanto/Contributor/Getty Images (top left; Vietnam/Getty Images (top middle); Thi/Shutterstock (top right); Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock (bottom left); Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images (bottom right)

There were also numerous other big and small stories, many with pastoral scenes of fishing, farming, weaving bamboo baskets and farmers chasing away foxes from their duck pen. Legendary creatures like dragons and phoenixes also made appearances, with one of the most impressive pieces involving floating dragons. The instrument-heavy music has simple vocal interludes. Combined with the interplay of the water stage and lights, it created a stunning act.

What intrigued me the most was the dexterity of the puppet masters. Guided by their hands, the puppets performed various feats from mock fights and juggling to dances with candles and fireworks. Not once did the masters reveal themselves or their mechanisms. Puppeteers undergo nearly ten years of training before they can perform before audiences, and it shows in their skill.

The hour-long show reminded me of the puppet shows I had watched in fairs as a child. While I was just as fascinated now as I was then, this time I understood and admired the dedication of the performers, who were carrying forward a unique facet of their culture.

  • Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?