Despite international honors and state investment, Vietnam's traditional performance arts are losing audiences
A performance of tuong, a disappearing form of Vietnamese theater, at the Hanoi-based Vietnam Tuong Theater
Every day, five times a day, audiences pack the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Hoan Kiem District. In 2009, the theater held nearly 1,700 shows. More than 730,000 people turned out to see the puppets dance.
In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the line "An toi, roi nuoc" (dinner, then water puppetry show) is a popular catchphrase among tour guides.
Indeed, it is a one-stop cultural experience a proverbial box representing traditional performance art that tourists happily check off their list.
Once that box has been checked, however, their interest also wanes.
Theaters all over the capital are either closing or flagging financially as they struggle to preserve what everyone (but the audience) says are priceless pieces of Vietnam's cultural past.
A total of five Vietnamese art forms have been recognized as World Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Despite the honors, cultural heritages are failing to attract audiences regardless of revival and promotion efforts.
Some theater organizers have even begun to modernize and tweak traditional art forms to attract audiences. These amendments have proven largely ineffective.
The Thang Long Cultural Center in Hanoi was built to preserve and revive ca tru (an ancient northern Vietnamese genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists) after it was inscribed on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritages in need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2009.
The brand new facility at 25 Ton Dan Street, Hoan Kiem District (just a stone's throw from the capital's tourist hub) seemed like the perfect place to launch a revival.
Yet, a year after offering three 45-minute performances every day, seven days a week, the center closed due to thinning audiences.
Artists performing ca tru (an ancient northern Vietnamese genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists), which was inscribed on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritages in need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2009
According to Lan Huong, the center's director, she and her staff solicited ideas from tourism companies and offered free shows to promote the art. But it was all for nothing, she said.
The Vietnam Tuong Theater located at 51 Duong Thanh Street in Hoan Kiem District was built in 2003 to showcase hat tuong (also called hat boi, or simply tuong), a disappearing form of Vietnamese theater.
For the past seven years, the theater's staff has made repeated attempts to bolster its marketing strategy. They have invited tourists to attend special performances and printed brochures in five languages.
Today, only about 20 spectators make up the audience at the theater's two weekly shows.
Many revivalists hoped that the construction of the Kim Ma Theater in Ba Dinh District would signal a return of cheo a form of satirical musical theater, often including dance, traditionally performed by northern peasants.
But the audiences never really materialized.
The 500-seat theater has housed just fifteen cheo performances since it opened at the end of 2009. To survive, the theater managers began renting the main stage for wedding parties and meetings.
They now perform on a smaller stage, big enough for about a hundred people, housed in the same building.
According to meritorious artist Ha Quoc Minh, director of Vietnam's Cheo Theater, the lack of audience is understandable and normal. The problem doesn't come from the audiences themselves, it comes from the way the arts are presented to the public.
To survive on Kim Ma's 100-seat stage, the artists perform cheo in new ways with more repertoires, presented with more action and quick rhythm, to give the old art new life.
"[And also] to help the audience to understand the essence and the spirit of the art," said Thanh Tram, a performer on the stage.
According to Phan Duc Man, chairman of Kim Lien Travel Company, "The shows should be more interactive to avoid monotony."