Water puppets is an ancient art, documented as far back as the establishment of Thang Long (Hanoi) as the capital of the country 1,000 years ago, although it may have existed even before this. After 1010, legend has it that the country went through a stable period, with no wars, and handicrafts were able to flourish. At the same time, festivals and ceremonies became popular, providing an opportunity for artists to perform puppet shows both on land and water.
Thanh Long Water Puppets Theatre, on the northeastern bank of Hoan Kiem Lake, is certainly not 1,000 years old, nor reminiscent of the traditional environment in which water puppet shows would have taken place, but if you want to see this art form it’s easy accessible, reasonably priced and an authentic performance.
The theatre is more comfortable than we remember from the first visit we made a decade ago; we’re sure than in those days the seats were wooden benches, prone to sending your bum to sleep, but now the hall boasts rows of standard theatre-style, red-cushioned chairs. What makes it different to other theatres is that it has a pond at the front instead of a stage.
The show starts with a short musical composition on traditional instruments, played by the small orchestra to the side of the pond; it’s introduced in Vietnamese and English and then the puppet performances begin with a prelude by clown Teu, a funny looking puppet with sprouting hair. Then things really come to life, with a band of drummers taking to the watery stage.
The performance runs for just under an hour and at time of writing comprises 14 different acts, though the programme is subject to change. Each act is distinctive, using different puppets representing people and animals, and range from humorous stories to visual and musical displays.
While the performance won’t suit everyone, we enjoyed it a lot more than we expected to — we smiled at the cuteness and were even mildly wowed in places. Our favourites were the agricultural work display and the ‘Xa thuong’ hymns, accompanied by a troupe of dancers waving flaming torches. It’s reasonably fast paced, with each play lasting only a few minutes.
All performances are accompanied by the orchestra and vocalists either singing or providing a voiceover in Vietnamese only, but you’ll get the gist (though not the humour).