Friday, May 06, 2005

(T) May 6, 2005 - Water Puppet Theatre, Vietnam

During a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam end April 2005, I chanced upon a delightful folk art – Water Puppet Theatre. The performance took place indoors in a small theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake. 1st class seats are a mere RM10, and for 2nd class, the price is about RM5. There are 2 shows a day – 4.30pm and 7.30pm.

Pictures (taken from my point-n-shoot):

And since I don’t know much about this art form, I’ve taken the liberty to summarise the text from "Vietnamese Theatre", a book I bought from Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi, published in 1999 by The Gioi Publishers.


Puppetry is a traditional art form closely linked to the longstanding spiritual life of the Vietnamese people. Marionettes of different kinds can be found all over the country. However, puppetry art concentrates mostly in the midlands and the plans of northern Vietnam where it has developed and has been modified. The word roi (puppetry) has become part of the proper name applied to villages (for example, the Roi village in Yen district, Nam Ha province) to pagodas (for example Roi pagoda in Phu Xuyen district, Ha Yay provinces), and even to ponds found in many places.

In the Middle Ages, such acts as leo day, mua roi (“climbing up a rope” and “manipulating puppets”) appealed to people of all ages attending villages festivals. The excitement of puppetry art is expressed in proverbs, folk songs, rhymes and other literary forms.

Puppet shows were usually carried out at religious ceremonies and festivals.


Water puppetry is present in almost all provinces and cities of the Red River delta and midlands. It is closely associated with the material and spiritual life of wet-rice growers. This art was shaped with two components: puppets and water. The latter is an essential element for wet-rice cultivation. The wonderful combination of these two elements has produced an art typical of the regions of the fertile plains of North Vietnam criss-crossed by a dense network of rivers, lakes and ponds with their yearly flood cycle well-known to the local inhabitants.

This is an outcome of the creativeness of the Vietnamese people, an art that reflects their philosophy, way of life, behaviour and attitude toward the universe, nature and cohabitants.

Water provides not only the setting. It seems also to have magical powers of transformation. Water puppets are simple, sometimes crudely craved works with rough forms to give just the idea of an animal or a human being. The surface of water constitutes a “mirror” reflecting the images of puppets while providing them with supple and graceful reflection of their movements which thereby become lively. Thus, the stage is an extensive space where the sky, clouds, trees and scenarios are seen in constant motion, serving as a background for the characters to display their life. Since ancient times, water puppetry has always been a charming performance art of commoners.

Water puppets are made of light, rot-resistant kinds of wood (such as Ficus Racemosa L. or Ficus Glomerata Robx). They are coated with resin from the lacquer tree (Rubus Succedanea) in the Midland region of North Vietnam which was formerly used to paint boats.

Water puppets are controlled from a distance by means of strings and poles with a simple or complex system of long and short rods and wooden perches, etc. Water puppeteers must stand with their body half-immersed in the water behind the stage to direct puppets acting on the water surface.

Water puppet performances are given in the open air with the following components:
1. Puppeteers’ manipulation room: it is built on the pond or lake with a screen to hide the puppeteers
2. The stage: a water area of 4m x 4m with long low slopes on the sides, where the puppets operate
3. Audience area: the ground in front of, behind and on the sides of the stage, in the shade of trees surrounding the pond or lake

The repertoire usually includes the following items:
- Scenes describing people’s life (rice growing, duck-raising, fishing, rice-polishing, weaving, etc.)
- Entertainment (wrestling, horse-race, ladder climbing, dragon or unicorn dances, swordplay, etc.)
- Scenes reproducing historic stories and figures or national heroes
- Scenes borrowed from Tuong and Cheo

Puppet shows are usually short, depicting various aspects of people’s life. Originally, they are accompanies with no songs and music. Later, these components were incorporated into the puppet show with the help of a small ensemble of singers and musicians of traditional music and folk-song.

Great attention is paid by the State to the preservation and development of folk water puppet guilds in villages. Some famous water puppet theatre companies, both private and State-run, offers travelling performances inside and outside Vietnam, which has made it possible for this art to become well-known to numerous audiences.


imee said...

Wow!! I'm really impressed..looking at the photos. It looks quite fun actually. never thought that there are such puppet ingenious. hehe but im just wondering do the puppeteer stay underwater the whole time or what..haha the last photo was of all of them standing in the water..

Anonymous said...

Its interesting to actually view the photos of this traditional performance. I bet its even more lively when you watch one. I have read about this sometime back on mag and TV, i hope to watch it in person one day. How long is the whole show? 30min? 1hour?