I was sitting there, expecting a so-so performance of folk music, hoping I was not wasting money because I have seen it somewhere else. When the dragons, on the water, spitted fire, I was up on my seat, my bag’s contents almost spilling, with tears in my eyes, clapping like an eight-year old kid who has just seen the most magnificent show on earth.
The dragon on the water spitted fire. I mean, the dragon on the water spitted fire. The water puppet theatre show looked seemingly simple — the stage divided into three: the middle part with the water pool for the puppets and the puppeteers, and the two sides for the instrumentalists and singers. The show started slow with an introduction from a masters of ceremonies whom we could not see from the audience. A solo song from a female performer began softly strumming the one-stringed dan bau and singing a melancholic song. All words and lyrics in the show were in Vietnamese. If you think that’s a turn off, you are wrong.
The 45-minute show was composed of more than a dozen short skits with different stories but with a coherent theme — rural life in Vietnam. Water puppetry originated in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam in the 11th C.E. Most of the people living in this area are rice farmers, thus many of the skits in the show are about rice farming. While tourists see the water puppet show as a form of entertainment, the show is rich in Vietnamese symbolisms and values, and is reflective of the many cultural upheavals of Vietnam. It was a show of expertise and skills, arts and music combined, plus physical stamina as the puppeteers are submerged waist down in water during the whole show.
The show we attended were all in Vietnamese but I felt like I truly understood what the puppeteers were trying to say to me because the stories are universal. The value of perseverance, illustrated by the skit on two phoenixes trying to catch a ball, was not lost on me. Moreover, the show also incorporates Vietnamese legends, such as the famous Legend of the Restored Sword, which tells the story of how a giant tortoise got back the sword from Le Loi, the ruler of Vietnam who drove away the Chinese in the 15th century. The show also uses Vietnam’s four venerated creatures — the dragon (for power), the turtle (for long life and wisdom), the unicorn (for good luck), and the phoenix (for beauty). On top of all these universal themes, the skits were also humorous and laughter can transcend any language barrier.
There are several water puppet shows all over Hanoi and Vietnam but we watched the water puppet show at The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre at 57B Dihn Tien Hoang, Hang Bac, near the Hoan Kiem Lake, because they are world famous. The troupe has existed since 1969 and membership is difficult because apprenticeship takes 10 years. Well, it is no wonder they are good at what they are doing.
You might miss the theatre because the signage is covered by trees, but the ticket booth is beside the coffee shop at the northern-eastern part of Hoan Kiem Lake. Many warned that the line to the show is long and advised to book the tickets with a website to skip the line. I preferred not to do this for two reasons: 1. the ticket is only 100,000VND (US$4.3) and the website will charge me US$11, and 2. the US$6.6 difference I will pay to the website will not go to the water puppet performers. What we did was lined up at the ticket booth 30 minutes before the show time — there were four people ahead of us, but about a dozen more were already seated inside waiting for the show. The Thang Long theatre has four shows everyday during the summer and six shows every day during the winter, with one additional show every Sunday morning. If you can’t get tickets for the nearest show, go with the next available one and use the time to tour the Old Quarter while waiting for your show. Or you can buy for the next day.
Water puppetry is not a dying art, many are still practising it. And while many people would say the tourism industry has commodified a once traditional art, I believe the Thang Long troupe’s price for their show is very reasonable — way, way cheaper than a discounted Broadway ticket, but, for me, way, way more entertaining than a Broadway show — so I want to make sure all the money I’m paying (and it’s not even a lot) will go to the troupe that is continuing a wonderful centuries-old tradition, than to an agency.
Photos by Joel Lopez
Gaboriault, Derek, “Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre: A Look Through The Ages” (2009). Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects. Paper 205.
Nguyen Thi Thuy Linh, Water Puppetry and Peasants’ Life in Vietnam.
Pack, Sam, Eblin, Michael, and Walther, Carrie, “Water Puppetry in The Red River Delta And Beyond: Tourism and The Commodification of An Ancient Tradition” (2012), ASIA Network Exchange.