Watching A Water Puppet Show In Hanoi, And A Bit About The History Of Water Puppetry, Vietnam

In the heart of the old quarter in Hanoi, there are small theaters showing water puppet performances.
Water puppetry is an old tradition unique to Vietnam.
It is called “Water Puppets,” because the puppets actually perform in a pool of water, to mimic the water in the rice fields before the planting of the rice.

The art form dates back to the 11th century and is believed to have originated in the Red River Delta, in northern Vietnam.
The rice farmers crafted their puppets and created shows to entertain their family and locals once the difficult harvest season had finished.

In the old days, villages were rural and remote, and transportation was difficult due to a lack of paved roads and motorized vehicles.
This means that the locals who lived in small communities had to celebrate their local festivals and so they invented dances, songs and entertainment, to add joy and laughter to their lives.

The wooden puppets were animated by puppet masters, who used the rice fields as their outdoor theaters.
The best time of the year for these village gatherings was right before planting the rice, when the rice fields were flooded with water.

Later on, after the planting season started, the farmers were very busy, and the weeding would go on until harvest, and then the whole cycle of harvesting and replanting of rice would begin again, because in tropical climates like in Vietnam, the farmers can plant and harvest rice three times per year.

The puppets are handmade from the wood of fig trees, which is believed to float better in water.
After carving the different puppets, the wood is then painted and lacquered multiple times, to give the wood added protection from water damage.

The Vietnamese name for this art form is Múa rối nước, meaning ‘making puppets dance on water.’
The little figures are manipulated so seamlessly by the hidden puppeteers, that they really look as if they are not puppets but have lives of their own.

The farmers built pagodas above their rice fields and held community festivals and puppet shows to show off their creations and well-practised puppeteering skills.

The Red River Delta would often overflow and flood the villages, and the water puppet performances in rice paddies helped make farmers and their families laugh and stay optimistic and hopeful during the monsoon season.
They also believed that the funny mischievous shows helped keep the evil spirits from doing any harm to their crops.

The puppet masters operated the wooden figures from waist-deep water, standing in the rice fields and remaining invisible behind a screen.

From the early days, farmers took the art very seriously and kept the knowledge of how to operate and control the puppets a secret within their family.
They passed the skills down through the generations, but only to sons, for fear that daughters would marry outside of the village and reveal their secrets to their new families.

Even now, puppeteers have to train for three years before they can perform, and the methods still remain a family secret.

We went to buy tickets to the Water Puppets show right after our 5km run around the Hoan Kiem Lake, and we got front row seats.
The show had a few short skits, accompanied by live musicians who played beautiful music on bamboo flutes, horns, drums, wooden bells and stringed instruments.
The musicians and singers were all dressed in traditional clothing.

As we watched the puppets zoom across the water, perfectly in sync and sometimes even passing objects between one another, it was really awe inspiring to see how the talented artists worked their magic from behind the pagoda screen, their hands beneath the murky waters.

The stories being acted out were of fire-breathing dragons, a legend of a king who got his sword back from a magic turtle, a story of a fisherman, a story about chasing a fox who tried to hunt the family’s ducks, a dance of the four sacred animals, a spiritual dance, planting of the rice with farmers riding their buffaloes and a skit about energetic kids in a swimming competition.

There were changing color lights and dry ice smoke and fireworks sparkling over the water, to give the stories more drama and mystery.

We had a fabulous time watching the water puppets.
Many shops around town sell new or antique puppets, and they make fabulous decorative souvenirs.
But our bags are already overloaded, so we sadly did not get a puppet to take home.

From Hanoi with love,

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