Friday, December 11, 2015

Vietnamese Water Puppets

The Vietnamese water puppet show was one of my highlights during my brief visit to Hanoi. Conveniently held in a building right next to the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Thang Long Puppet Theatre was an easy find. Although we had purchased our $4.50 ticket earlier in the day, there was no reserved seating. It was a full house and I had the unfortunate luck to be behind some tall foreigners.
The show started with the traditional Vietnam orchestra playing various instruments and singing in Vietnamese. Then the wooden puppets appeared in the murky water, manipulated by puppeteers standing in waist-high water behind the rattan screen. Such a setup is similar to traditional village puppetry, except that the performances would be held in rice paddies.
Emperor and turtle

Each puppet is hand-carved from lightweight wood. After painting, they are covered with lacquer to help slow down the damaging effects of the water. Some puppets such as the fish are divided into a few sections, articulated to achieve more fluid movement. Each puppet is attached to a bamboo pole that is about 4.6 meters (15 feet) long. A human figure puppet typically is fixed to a floating base at the end of the pole, which includes a rudder and acts like a fulcrum for any string that controls the upper body. Some of those might be controlled by two people, one for the pole and the other for the strings. Up to eight puppeteers might be behind the screen at once, carefully manipulating the puppets to ensure fluid movement and yet keep the bamboo poles under water and out of sight. Some of the puppets could be between 10-15kg (22-33 lbs)and .6 meters (2 feet) tall; combined with the water, controlled movements would require a fair amount of strength.

Themes of the puppet show were directly related to life in the village; fishing, farming, rice planting, harvest, and special festivals. Folktales, legends, and history was also featured.
Dance of the Water Fairies

My favorite section of the performance was near the end, in which the dance of the water fairies was featured. The synchronous movement of the puppets was quite impressive. I would have loved for the performance to have gone longer, but alas after around 50 minutes, the show was over. Most people quickly exited, but I lingered a bit longer to view some of the puppet displays in the building.
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In addition to my short video above, you can find out more about the behind-the-scenes art of water puppetry in the documentary video below.

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