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Water Puppets

Most civilizations have a puppetry tradition. Yet only in Vietnam have puppeteers taken their art to the water. Since the eleventh century, this unique cultural offering has been kept a guarded treasure of a few families along the Red River Delta.

The art evolved in the delta villages around Hanoi long before it was introduced to the court there more than 800 years ago. A stele in 1121 records that a water puppet show was staged for the king's birthday party.

Few other than those who lived nearby ever saw these performances. Water puppetry remained a strictly local entertainment, with shows usually performed after the spring harvest or at special celebrations like an important wedding. At these shows, villagers first paid homage to the spirits, thanked them for the harvest and then sat back to enjoy the show.

In 1956, in order to preserve the cultural tradition, the Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe was established and a training program was set up in Hanoi. Today it is possible to see the puppets perform in downtown Hanoi on a regular schedule, and many tourists feel it is a show not to be missed.

As soon as the lights dim, there's a whacking of drums, a clashing of cymbals and the rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Festival flags pop up, oddly dry, from the jade water. Golden dragons thrash about and spit fire. The acrid smell of gunpowder fills the smoke-veiled pool. When a monkey puppet jumps out of the water to climb a palm tree and then splashes back into the water, you may ask, "However did he do that?" But quickly, the illusion of real life grabs hold of you, and banishes such questions. Instead you'll howl with delight as the good guys defeat the bad guys in ferocious battle, or clap as unicorns play ball, and fairies and holy animals dance. Only after the final bang of the very last firecracker when the puppeteers wade on-stage are you liable to wonder again just how it's done.

If you can't visit the Red River Delta in person, the water puppets can take your imagination there. A peasant plays the flute as he ploughs the fields on his water buffalo, butterflies flutter over lily pads, and a boy catches croaking frogs. A fox is chased away but not before it manages to steal a duck. The drums roll as a fisherman hauls in a huge fish which gets away in a frenzy of flapping fins. Then the silly fellow mistakes another fisherman for his catch and plops a basket over his head.

To achieve this magic the puppeteers hide behind a curtain to the rear of the red-roofed pagoda on-stage. They stand waist-high in water. In the past, they fought the chill by drinking nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) . These days they wear neck-high rubber wet suits under colorful costumes to ward off hypothermia. With ten foot long bamboo poles submerged under the water they manipulate dozens of puppets. Usually it requires only one puppeteer to handle a puppet, but two or three puppeteers work together when the puppet is heavy or the action is complicated. When a dragon spits fire, for instance, one puppeteer makes it flick its three-foot tail and slither through the water, while another manipulates the string that rips off the plastic covering the firecracker in the dragon's mouth so the popping noise comes right on time.

One novel feature about water puppetry is that the watery stage is a character in its own right. It changes from a shimmering pond, reflecting a pagoda and swaying palms into a rippling river perfect for boaters, into a churning sea spewing the smoke of battle.

Among the longest-running theatrical productions in Asia, the Thang Long show is also one of the most exciting. That's partly due to the musicians. The ferment begins with Cheo, the melody sung by a chorus backstage and two women on-stage, or an introduction by Chu Teu, a bald, fat-cheeked clown. The bamboo flutes, bronze drums, gongs and xylophones keep up the momentum.

Listening to the shrill Vietnamese songs describing what's happening to the puppets is surprisingly enjoyable. That's because the individual acts are never more than five minutes long, and the story lines are simple and immediately translated so you know at once what's going on. The pace is so fast and the numbers so varied, there's little chance for boredom in the hour and a half performances.

It's folklore, not politics that provides the lore for the shows, said Judith Ladinsky, chair of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam and associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Ladinsky, who has attended many shows on her fifty trips to Vietnam since 1980, especially enjoyed one for the children of Hanoi at which the stage was set on stilts in Hoan Kiem Lake itself. "The children giggled, chattered and chewed on sunflower seeds," Ladinsky recalls.

"Puppeteers are recognized as highly skilled artisans. Although people usually decide in their teens to become puppeteers, it's not something you do for a couple of years and then leave," says Ladinsky.

The most recent recruit of the Thang Long troupe has worked there six years, and although the fifty puppeteers of the troupe look young, most are in their forties. Apprentices typically must build up their skill and strength during a six-year training, starting with stagecraft, movement, acting and singing in the first three years, before being allowed to perform.

The Thang Long water puppetry troupe performs at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street in Hanoi by the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. In the lobby, tourists can buy video tapes of the performance. For an additional fee, they can take still photographs and video recordings. There is another wonderful troupe outside the center of Hanoi at 32 Dong Truong Ching. Water puppetry is now also performed at the zoo in Ho Chi Minh City.

Puppet Shows:
Thang Long 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street Hanoi 32 Dong Truong Ching Hanoi Zoo Ho Chi Minh City

Published on 8/1/95

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