This week’s Travel Photo of the Week is of traditional water puppets in Vietnam. The art of water puppetry began over a thousand years ago in the rural farming communities of the Red River delta in northern Vietnam. Most likely started as an integral component of religious ceremonies and festivals it has grown to an entertaining art form. The flooded rivers and rice paddies of the agricultural areas of Hanoi set the “stage” for this uncommon form of puppetry. Up to two-foot tall puppets are carved out of heavy wood and lacquered in bright colors to make them waterproof. The puppeteers stand in chest deep water and operate the heavy puppets and the mechanisms that animate them on six foot bamboo poles hidden behind bamboo curtains with a temple facade.
The art form of water puppetry almost died out but in the early 90’s tourism started to open back up in Vietnam and exposed it to a brand new audience. Now most major cities from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City have dedicated water puppet theaters where the performance can be observed in climate controlled comfort. A typical show consists of several acts based on traditional farming community life with a dose of Buddhist or Confucian lesson peppered in. Elements include fishing boy meets fishing girl, dragons (the bringer of rain in Vietnamese culture), Kim Qui, a sword carrying Golden Turtle God (similar to to King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake Excalibur myth) and my favorite, an extravagant yet funny battle of a fisherman and a fish where the fish out smarts his adversary and the fisherman manages to hook a fellow villager (a Vietnamese precursor to the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons?)
The show is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra consisting of vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, Đàn bầu (a simple single stringed instrument), gongs, and bamboo flutes. The water puppet shows are very entertaining, the humor and lessons transfer even if the language does not. Western ears may not appreciate the chaotic tones of the music score (consider it payback for exporting Alvin & The Chipmunks) but this should not prevent you from enjoying this art form unique to Vietnam.
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Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater program link: