A Puppet Show for Grown-Ups in Hanoi

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.

Dance!

Dance!

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.

Narrator before the screen that hid the orchestra

Narrator in front of the screen that hid the orchestra

I caught them at a bad moment, but these were the singers and narrators

I caught them at a bad moment, but these were the singers and narrators

Demure lady puppets

Demure lady puppets

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.

There were several battles and ceremonial displays

There were several battles and ceremonial displays

hanoi water puppets

To give you an idea of the size of the stage

To give you an idea of the size of the stage

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.

The craftspeople behind the magic

The craftspeople behind the magic

They wear waist-high waders to protect them from the water

They wear waist-high waders to protect them from the water

Puppets on display

Puppets on display

ACAM: Vietnam — Where to Go, Part 1

Rounding up guidebook and Internet advice, here are some places to visit and things to see and do while I’m in Vietnam. Part 1 because I know commenters will have suggestions!

female puppets dance on the water

Do they break out in song? Do they dance?

See a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi, or some other water puppetry venue. Apparently this art form developed as a way of appeasing spirits and entertaining fellow workers in flooded rice fields. Today, puppeteers stand offstage and manipulate the puppets via bamboo poles and string, and the puppets appear to walk on water. The shows are usually comedic. Sounds like fun!

Yum

Eat a lot. Here are some foods I’ve been encouraged to sample: phở bò, bánh xèo, bún thịt nướng, cơm tấm, bánh mì, banh bao vac, lau, and French-influenced foods like croissants and duck. I think every single person who learns I’m going to Vietnam says a variation on “oh the food!” This is a promising start.

imposing, with a flag in front

Mlle. O'Leary has a souvenir t-shirt from here

Visit war memorials and museums. I have a longtime fascination with what we Americans call the Vietnam War, and I’m interested to see it presented from the other side. The Hanoi Hilton, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and his mausoleum, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History are all in Hanoi and should give a pretty comprehensive view of the struggle, and there’s also the Vietnam History Museum and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Take a boat to Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue. It’s one of the oldest structures in Hue (a town midway between the two major cities of Vietnam, on the coast), and it’s still a working temple populated by monks.

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4.