If China and Indonesia have impressed the world with their shadow puppetry, or Korean “Baltal” (feet-mask) consisting of puppet actors and human actors has become its unique cultural heritage, Vietnam has also successfully preserved its one-of-a-kind folk art form: water puppetry.
Dating back to the 11th century under Ly dynasty, when Red River Delta area in northern Vietnam had to frequently suffer from floods in rice paddy fields, the villagers came up with an idea of entertaining one another with the puppets performing over the waist-deep water. It had gradually been practiced and developed into such a popular form of arts that every communal pond in any village could become a perfect stage for this impromptu performance. It is no doubt that people of all ages are drawn to watching water puppet shows performed in different festivals throughout the year.
Modern puppet shows can also be performed in portable tanks of water or a theater in which a pool stage has been constructed. If you ever attend a water puppet show, you will never miss the split-bamboo screen resembling the temple facade built up in the middle of the pond – where all the secrets of this art form lies in. Behind the bamboo curtain stand our skilled puppeteers, who control a large rod and other string devices hidden under the water to manipulate the puppets, creating an illusion that the puppets are moving by themselves across the water. There are a wide range of wooden and lacquered puppet characters, all of whom share the same expression of vividness, great sense of humor and symbolism.
In water puppet performances, these characters appear above the water and act out a skit; accompanied by background music played by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra including vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, monochord (đàn bầu), gongs and bamboo flutes. The skits usually have rural themes and have strong influence from Vietnamese folklore. They can be stories of daily life in the countryside: harvest, fishing, festivals; or folk tales often told by grandparents; or dances of mythical creatures along folk songs. Spotlights and colorful flags are also employed to create a festive atmosphere for the performance. All in all, it creates a relaxing and exciting space for the audience, thus becoming good entertainment source for both the locals and the tourists who want to experience the old rural communal atmosphere of Vietnam.
This cultural asset has been preserved and practiced by different groups of artists throughout Vietnam. If you have the chance to visit Hanoi – the old capital of Vietnam, do not miss out the chance to watch water puppet shows frequently performed in Thang Long water puppet theater. It will absolutely amaze you, like it actually did to the “Running man” (*) crew when they watched the performance a few years ago in Hanoi!
(*) an entertainment program broadcast on SBS.
By Nguyen Nguyet Minh, ASEAN Correspondent from Vietnam