Every culture has its own unique festival or attraction that signifies something integral to what makes that culture special (like Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant Show!) In Vietnam, one of the most historically significant and now universally entertaining shows that I visited was the water puppet show in Hanoi.
Before traveling to Vietnam, when the term ‘puppet show’ was mentioned, it would usually bring back memories of the tiny finger puppets I made as a child using permanent markers. Funny faces were painted on the pads of my ten digits and then an impromptu theatre show was performed for my imaginary friends. The Vietnamese Water Puppet Show in Hanoi was just a wee bit different.
Vietnamese Theatre: The Water Puppet Show in Hanoi
What is a Water Puppet Show?
You are probably thinking by now: ‘That’s all well and good, but what in the name is a Water Puppet Show? Well, I’ll tell you:
A Water Puppet Show is really just what it sounds like: a puppet show but on water. If you attend one of these theatre shows, you will get to see the most amusing and rather confusing show of puppets jerking their way across shallow pools of water with the master puppeteers well hidden behind curtains and stages.
In fact, the secret to how these talented puppeteers make their puppets move so flawlessly and on cue on top of the water while seeming blind from behind a screen is a closely guarded secret till date. It is part of the thrill, especially when you see the puppets impossibly pass objects between themselves.
It is said that in the past, these secrets were passed down from father to son because they feared daughters would divulge the secrets when they marry outside the villages.
Water Puppet Show History
It is documented that ‘Water Puppetry’ dates back to about 1,000 years during the Ly Dynasty (although it could very well go back further by a few hundred years or so).
Legend has it that the country saw a prolonged period of peace and prosperity right after 1010. The fact that there were no wars to be fought at the time meant that the people could sit back, relax and come up with as well as enjoy some of their cultural festivals and traditions. This meant that handicrafts flourished and ceremonies, festivals and general merry making become popular pass time activities. This provided the perfect opportunity for talented artists to perform water puppet shows on both land and water.
It is said that the original water puppet shows were performed in actual rice paddies around the Red River Delta in North Vietnam. It is also said that the shows were not originally meant just for the entertainment of the local rice farmers but also as a way to keep the spirits amused so that they would not cause mischief.
Back then, simple stages were built around flooded rice paddies and the expert puppeteers would go about their business regaling and entertaining their audience while in wadding waist deep waters. Leech bites and other related issues that come with standing in murky waters for long periods of time were common place.
The ‘heart of the show’ hasn’t changed much today; only the setting and the locations. The typical themes that surround a water puppet show are still deeply rooted in rural Vietnamese traditions that include fishing, planting and harvesting of rice as well as village folklore.
The Water Puppet Show—What to Expect
To illustrate the skill levels involved here, you should know that the show typically features 7 to about 11 puppeteers working in harmony with one another to create magic on stage. These puppeteers train for at least three years before they get up on or in – as it were – stage to entertain their viewers.
Typical performances are accompanied by a wide variety of traditional Vietnamese folk music that is played on:
- Wooden bells
- Bamboo flutes
- A single stringed guitar
The music plays a huge part in the show and the instrumentalists often shout words of encouragement to the puppets on display. These puppets are often crafted in the form of human characters as well as animal characters.
In keeping with the traditions of this ancient art, the theatre shows are always in Vietnamese and even though most Westerners may not fully understand what is going on, the seemingly impossible movement of puppets controlled using a long rod over waist deep water by artists behind a screen is interesting and amusing enough on its own. Plus the music is kind of catchy!
You will be whisked away into a watery world of years past as the puppets do their darndest to stay on their strings as they depict an array of traditional Vietnamese folk lore and legends such as:
- The Legend of the Restored Sword of King Le (which is the story of Hoan Kiem Lake and the giant tortoise)
- Stories of fire breathing dragons dancing on the water
- Stories about a boy riding a buffalo while playing a flute
Many of the messages being conveyed or stories being told also revolve around the life of a typical Vietnamese rice farmer with people cultivating the rice paddies, tending their water buffaloes and catching fish in addition to the various folk lore.
The show takes about an hour and is by far one of the most entertaining attractions in Hanoi.
Where to See the Show in Hanoi
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is by far the most popular show in Hanoi (though I saw mine at Lotus Water Puppet, which was great too). Located near Hoan Kiem Lake, this ancient theatre is a magnet for both locals and international tourists who want to see this legendary traditional Vietnamese form of art.
You definitely cannot miss the show while in Hanoi since it is the only one that runs for 365 days a year! It has four daily shows and an additional show during the winter months between October and April when this part of the world welcomes thousands of tourists.
After the show, you can buy souvenir puppets and see if you can figure out how they make them dance!
It is advisable to pay a bit more to get closer to the stage when you visit. This theatre seats hundreds of viewers and the puppets are, understandably, smaller than you would like them to be.
There are plenty of options for advance tickets and tours, below are some of the best.
BOOK AN EXPERIENCE:
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Bucket List: 34 Things to Do in Vietnam’s Main City
Hoi An Bucket List: 21 Things to Do in Vietnam’s Ancient Town
Eat Worm Cakes (& Other Street Food) in Hanoi
Halong Bay Day Trip: The Best Vietnam Junk Boat Cruise
Other Things to do in Hanoi