Water Spectacular

Vietnam's Water Puppets

Vietnam’s Water Puppets

Hanoi’s Water Puppets are Vietnam’s Punch & Judy.

Northern Vietnam is the birthplace of water puppetry (roi nuoc) and is at least 1,000 years old. Hanoi is the best place to catch a water puppet show, with the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre at the center of the action with six daily performances, though it’s wise to book well ahead. Contemporary performances use a square tank of waist-deep water for their stage; the water is murky to conceal the mechanisms that operate the puppets. The wooden puppets, up to 50cm long and weighing as much as 15kg, are decorated with glossy paint. Each lasts only about three to four months if used continually, so puppet production provides several villages outside Hanoi with a full-time livelihood. Eleven puppeteers, each trained for a minimum of three years, are involved in the performance. They stand in the water behind a bamboo screen and unfortunately suffer from a host of water-borne diseases, an occupational hazard. Some puppets are attached to a long pole, while others are on a floating base, with rudders to help guide them. The skills required to operate the puppets were always kept secret and passed only from father to son, never to daughters who might marry and take the secrets with them.

Accompanying the action in the water is the music provided by a band. It includes wooden flutes, gongs, drums, bamboo xylophones and the stringed zither. The performances consist of a number of vignettes depicting pastoral scenes and legends, like the battle of the fisherman with his prey, or fire-breathing dragons. These performances are a lot of fun, the puppets are amusing and graceful and the water setting allows the puppets to appear and disappear as if by magic. Spectators sitting in the front-row seats can expect a bit of a splash. You have been warned. If you are not heading to Hanoi, then there are a couple of locations in Ho Chi Minh City that cater for the one of the “must-see” tourist experiences.

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