I went to shows in different countries on this trip, seeing types of theater particular to the region, like kabuki in Japan and hula dancing in Hawaii. In Hanoi, that meant seeing water puppet theater, which started in the rice paddies of northern Vietnam in the 11th century, if not earlier. Farmers put on shows after the flooded paddies had been harvested. The shows were a way to celebrate the end of harvest, and also a way to honor the water spirits of the paddies. As with so many forms of entertainment, it eventually became something used to entertain wealthier people, and the show moved inside. Now there are several shows a day in a few different theaters in the capital city.
A live band played hidden behind screens stage right, and three women in traditional dress sat in front of the screens and narrated the show. They took turns talking, while TV screens showed English translations of what they said, and they sang during the performance. The stage was a large rectangle of water, and the puppeteers hid behind the large scrim and manipulated the puppets using long bamboo poles.
The puppets were small metal and wood creations, and they acted out love stories, country dances, and religious ceremonies. The narrators described each dance before it took place, and the TVs gave credit to the choreographers; this is an important art form here, and there are various awards to be won for choreography, story, and execution.
It was fun to see, but I confess I didn’t get all the intricacies of the form. The puppets have jerky movements, as puppets do, which distracts me. Maybe their constant exposure to water made them rustier or slower than they would have otherwise been. I enjoyed watching them dance and spar, but puppets in general, not just ones in water, have never really captured my attention. Still, I’m glad I went.