Water puppetry stays afloat

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A water puppetry performance inside the Vietnam History Museum in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. Photo by Phuong Anh 

Backpackers Roswitha Riedinger and Claudia Rubrecht did not have big plans for Ho Chi Minh City.

They were here for just a day and a half before taking a flight to Hanoi.

And of this short stay, the duo, from Austria and Switzerland respectively, spent a whole Saturday afternoon last week at the city's Museum of Vietnam History in District 1. The museum is certainly a must-see place, given its precious collection of Duong Ha artifacts or the 20-year-old Xom Cai mummy, but the Europeans were not kept at the museum by their fascination for archaeological vestiges.

They were waiting all the while to see a 20-minute water puppetry show.

"It is said to be a must-see in Vietnam," said Riedinger, who along with her friend found the site, its address, and valuable information about the art from the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Although the show costs just VND50,000 (US$2.37) per ticket, the two visitors had to wait from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. to see it because few tickets had been sold that afternoon.

"The ticket seller told us that they have to sell at least ten tickets to start the show," said Rubrecht, 45, "but so far, there are only five."

Luck favored the patient five that day. Around 4 p.m., the seats of the open theater, which often receives around 180,000-200,000 visitors per month in high season, were filled with a group of more than 20 foreign tourists and some local children.

The performance did not fail to impress all the viewers. The children were very excited to see the colorful puppets come alive as farmers, ducks and foxes, not to mention mysterious creatures like dragons and phoenixes fly and do other things on water.

The folk and traditional music that accompanied the show was quite good, but the introduction in both Vietnamese and English before every performance was not clear at all.

The approximately 110-seat theater in the museum is built and decorated for hosting water puppetry performances. Its background looks like a two-story temple with big, long screen for the puppeteers to stand behind and control the wooden lacquered puppets. The stage, which is a waist-deep pool, is surrounded with three low walls on the left, right and front, around half a meter away from the audience's seats, close enough to see the dedicate, lively performance of the small puppets, each of which is supported by a large rod under the water.

Vietnamese water puppetry, also called "puppets that dance on water," is a tradition that dates back as far back as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area in the north.

In the past, when the rice fields would flood, villagers entertained each other using this form of puppet play. Today's Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition, and is performed around the country and even abroad.

Rong Vang Theater

While tourists like Riedinger and Rubrecht end up waiting for a few hours to see the show at the museum, others are advised to book tickets at least a few days in advance to enjoy a similar show at the Rong Vang (Golden Dragon) Water Puppet Theater inside the city's Labor Cultural Palace in the same district.

Here, the atmosphere is different, for most of its shows are full and booked by big groups of tourists.

Founded by director Huynh Anh Tuan of Thai Duong Stage Arts Company in 2008, Rong Vang endured losses for first three years, and has survived thanks to the effort and passion of the director and the artists.

These days, the Rong Vang Water Puppetry Theater is among the most visited spots in the city, offering three shows every night.

"Water puppetry and other traditional, folk arts and games were very dear to my generations, but are no longer so to kids and young people nowadays," said Tuan, who is also director of the Non La Theater, which puts on traditional music and art shows every week.

The troupe has been invited to attend and perform at several international cultural festivals around the world, including the Kijimuna Festa 2012 and the meeting of the International Association of Theater for Children and Young People in Japan last year.

Motivating factor

Huynh Tuan Anh, who is one of Rong Vang's 16 puppeteers and has been in the business for 14 years, said he still sticks to the art despite low income and hard work because "many Vietnamese people still love the art and many foreigners are willing to wait to enjoy it."

The Hanoi native said many members of the audience typically want patiently after the show to talk to him and other artists, appreciating their work and asking for more information about the art and about Vietnamese folk culture. "Their curious, happy faces make me feel as if we are bringing the whole country to the world," he said.

One of the puppeteers, Tuan Anh, had a very interesting story to tell.

Fourteen years ago, his house in Hanoi stood just a few meters from the renowned Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, but he had never enjoyed the show there. It was only when he visited Ho Chi Minh City with his father, when he was 24 that he got to see his first water puppet show. He was mesmerized and decided to become a puppeteer.

"I wanted to know how the wooden fish, the dragon can magically "˜fly' over the water. I thought to control them, the puppeteers must dive under water."

Anh could not wait longer to discover "the secret". The very next day, his father took him to the troupe's office and asked for permission for Anh to learn the art.

Rong Vang's director Chau Hung Lam, who used to direct cai luong (traditional southern opera) plays, but now focuses exclusively on water puppetry, said  Vietnam's water puppetry is as magical as western magic tricks. He said the puppeteers have to apply several stage effects to move the puppets in coordination with each other and the music in order to not only present a certain dance but tell a whole story and depict different characters. For instance, he said, a king looks serious and determined, while duck farmers are always in rush.

Puppeteers first learn to work under water and get used to wearing wet clothes for hours; then, after a few months, they are taught to perform with wooden fish, the most basic, easiest puppet to manipulate.

The hardest part for Anh and other puppeteers is when they have to perform in cold weather or countries of temperate climate.

However, Anh said, "I have become used to soaking in water, and during day-offs, I feel uneasy and "withered".

Apart from their daily performances, the puppeteers are taught to make and repair puppets, and those that are beyond repair are hung at the back of the stage.

"Though the puppets are made of wood that can last from three to six months after being soaked in water day after day, for me, they are no longer lifeless things, but have their own character. We cannot bring ourself to throw away such lovely, happy faces!"

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