No visitor to Vietnam, as part of their induction into Vietnamese culture, will arrive in the country without an invitation to enjoy a performance of Vietnam’s famous water puppets.

These performances are not only enjoyable, clever and sometimes delightfully humorous, but also open an insightful window into the cultural backcloth of Vietnamese village life, folklore, mythology and history, with the visual storytelling enhanced by the accompaniment of a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. 

The precise origins of the art are unknown, but almost certainly have their roots it in the older puppetry forms of Asia, including shadow puppetry traditions common throughout the region. 

Many modern scholars concur with the view that the specific form originated in Vietnam itself, in the rural agrarian cultures of the Red River Delta area around Hanoi in the 10th century AD, with early performances initially held in the rice paddies and later transposed to the purpose built pools which act as the stage area. 

The puppeteers themselves stand waist deep in water, and are screened from view behind a curtain, typically hung from beneath a visual emulation of a pagoda.

Puppets are hand carved from wood, usually fig, with lacquered features, and are controlled using up to three bamboo rods and various string mechanisms. The characteristics of water are utilised in the storytelling, with waves and splashing very much part of the artful dramatic effects, and often nowadays enhanced with lighting effects.

The family guilds of water puppeteers closely guard the finer skills of their dextrous handling techniques, aided by ensuring that the water is cloudy enough to mask their movements, and which historically resonates with the art form’s origins in the muddy paddy fields. 

The manipulation of the puppets, which can measure up to a metre high and weigh up to 15 kilograms, is a strenuous business and in the early paddy field performances, puppeteers encountered great hardship, enduring cold, especially over winter, and also had to contend with other occupational miseries such as leeches and waterborne diseases. 

There are several water puppet theatres operating in modern Vietnam, the most famous of which is the Thang Long Theatre adjacent to Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, whose troupe have toured the globe, bringing their craft to a wider world, inspiring and enthralling audiences in America, Australia and Europe. 

The oldest surviving water puppetry stage can be found at Thay Pagoda, outside Hanoi, whose lake still hosts water puppetry performances during its annual festival, a tradition dating back to the Le Dynasty (1533 – 1708).

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