Water puppetry, known to the Vietnamese as Mua Roi Nuoc, literally translates to "puppets that dance on water". These puppet shows are a traditional form of entertainment for the Vietnamese, dating back to the 11th century.
During the early 1990s three major companies namely the National Puppet Theatre, Thang Long Puppet Company of Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh City Puppet Company came together to establish dedicated water puppet theatres to cater for the interest of a growing number of foreign tourists in this unique art form. These same three companies are in constant demand for overseas festival appearances and each now incorporates both resident and touring groups.
In ancient Vietnam, villagers and locals believed that spirits controlled everything happening in their lives in one form or another. These water puppet shows were created to "entertain" and "satisfy" these spirits, and they were also used as a form of entertainment to the local Vietnamese villagers. This form of puppetry is a unique variation of the other variations of traditional Asian puppetry. In present times, the water puppet shows are performed in three venues: Traditional stage setups in villages, portable water tanks used by nomadic performers, or in a building set up specially for water puppet shows. The main buildings housing these stages for the water puppet shows in Vietnam are the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi and the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in Saigon.
The themes and stories behind these water puppet shows have a strong reference to folklore from rural Vietnamese villages. Many of these tales are based closely on stories of fishing, harvest of crops and important festivals on the Vietnamese calendar. These puppet shows often have a humorous twist to them.
The first documented instance of Water Puppet Theatre in Vietnam can be found at the Long Doi Son Pagoda, inscribed around 1211. The inscription describes entertainment that occurred at a birthday celebration for a King. The following inscription is a description for a scene from Water Puppet Theatre:
“A golden tortoise was seen on the rippling surface of water. On the back of the golden tortoise, the gates of the caves in the three mountains opened up. Different puppets figuring as fairies in the play appeared on stage and
dance. Then, the golden tortoise was brought ashore to be operated by hand, and the show continued on land.”
The following inscription describe the popular story of The Legend of the Restored Sword where a golden turtle asks a king to return the magical sword that helped win a battle.
The traditional stage setups in villages as mentioned earlier had a theatre-like structure immersed in shallow water at the edge of a village pond or lake. Hidden from the audience by a screen, eight puppeteers stand chest-deep in the water, which if necessary is coloured to hide the system of bamboo rods and pulleys used to manipulate the puppets. As well as serving to conceal the technical secrets of the performance, the water constitutes the stage on which the puppets (sculpted from wood and coated with waterproof paint) perform. Performances comprise short playlets (including a number borrowed from Vietnamese Opera) which recount Vietnamese legends and histories, interspersed by scenes of comedy and fighting animals. In water puppet shows, there is a very effective combination of the visual effects provided by fire, water, and the movements of the puppets. Musicians on either side of the pool provide the music and sound effects for the water puppet show with traditional instruments while also doing the voices. The puppets enter from either side of the stage, or emerge from the murky depths of the water. At the end of each performance, the eight puppeteers typically come out of the water to take a dripping bow.
A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music accompaniment. The instrumentation includes vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals and etc. The bamboo flute's clear, simple notes may accompany royalty while the drums and cymbals may loudly announce a fire-breathing dragon's entrance.
Singers of chèo (a form of opera originating in north Vietnam) sing songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets. The musicians and the puppets interact during performance; the musicians may yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or a word of encouragement to a puppet in need.
Despite the popularity of water puppet shows, the secret of how puppeteers control the puppets from beneath the water has been closely guarded for centuries. Rarely are people other than the puppeteers allowed behind the scenes. Even today, village guilds of puppeteers refer to the more complex maneuvers only by code names.
The most popular water puppet show in Ho Chi Minh City is unquestionably the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Located inside of a giant sports complex between Tao Dan Park and the Reunification Palace, the Golden Dragon show regularly sells out.
For generations of puppeteers, these form of art involved water-borne diseases, rheumatism and leeches. They endured bitingly cold winter performances with the help of strong doses of nuoc mam (a fish sauce) and ginger tea. Today the Hanoi puppeteers wear waders.
Through water puppet shows, rural people also expressed their desire for a better life of prosperity and happiness. In current times, water puppetry has become a popular form of entertainment, especially for local children and foreigners who want to discover more about vietnamese folk culture. Water puppetry is now frequently performed in puppet theaters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and is a regret if tourists miss the chance to enjoy it while in the country.
The show kick-started with a orchestra performance with a mix of both traditional and modern instruments.
One of the most interesting instruments are the Dan Bao, also known as the monochrome. It even had a solo performance in the entire show. After that, drums were struck, and that announced the official start of the show. Water puppets appeared from behind the set and danced around above the water, using it as a stage. There was even a singer cum narrator aiding in telling the story. Although it was being narrated in Vietnamese, the actions made by the puppets were still understandable. There was interesting elements added into the show like fire hoops and even 'tree-climbing mechanisms'. At the end of the show, the puppeteers presented a lively dragon dance half submerged in water, bringing the show to a perfect end.
The water puppet show was interesting and captivating. The use of bright and vibrant colours enhanced the experience intended to be brought across from the performers to the audience. The water puppets' stories and the puppets themselves were exotic and unique. The way the puppet masters controlled the marionettes clearly conveyed the story behind each act. I felt that the water puppet show was very meaningful, educational and humorous.
Tales of harvest, fishing, and life were depicted throughout the course of the water puppet show. The tales were closely based on Vietnamese folk tales and could be accurately interpreted by the audience due to the expert control of the puppet masters.
The experience was further enhanced by the show's band, which included a variety of musical instruments and sound effects closely relating to the water puppet show itself. All these elements contributed to a truly exciting and captivating experience.
The water puppet show featured a variety of stories, from legends to the everyday life chores of a rural life such as the fifth performance, “ Farm-Work (working the soil and replanting rice seedlings) ”. After the performances, I feel that the Vietnamese have a very rich culture. The pieces are very animated and although the narrative is spoken in Vietnamese, I could infer what the performance was about, and how the story is flowing. This was actually possible with the mood of the background music, and the lighting onto the water puppets. The atmosphere helped me to sense what was probably happening alongside the actions of the water puppets.
The performance that interested me the most is the eleventh performance, which is also the last performance, “Carp Transformed into Dragon”.
The following is the description from the pamphlet taken outside the theatre.
Carp transformed into Dragon
This dance is related to the legend of Emperor Ly Thai To, who transferred the royal capital from Ninh Binh to Hanoi 1000 years ago, thus starting a new brilliant chapter in the history of the VIetnamese nation. Legend has it that, upon his arrival in Hanoi, the Emperor saw a golden dragon among the clouds, so he decided to name this divine land “Thang Long” meaning “a soaring dragon”.
At the beginning, the carp was swimming among golden lily pads. Then water poured down from the top of the stage, in other words, rain. The rain fell heavily and the carp went under the water, and came up after the rain stopped, as a dragon. I found it the most interesting as I was slightly shocked and amused as the rain unexpectedly fell down. As the rain fell onto the water puppet carp, the carp seemed to glimmer under the lighting which looked pretty nice. The background music also made the performance all more intriguing to watch.
Overall, I enjoyed the performance and found out more about the Vietnamese culture through it.
I felt that the performance was quite intriguing, the tradition of the music and atmosphere made me feel part of the whole performance. I could sense the story behind the music and the puppetry made it come alive.
The puppeteers behind may be working very hard controlling all movements of every single puppet. What's more each puppet may weigh 15kg. The puppeteers must work on the puppet's movement, action, behaviour, reaction, position. That would require may be years of practice.
The whole water puppetry itself had been passed down from the 11th century, through many many generations. It is great this piece of art had survived the time.