The Lac Long Quan and Au Co fairy tale is revisited in the show Xin chao
The newly opened musical, dance and martial arts show Xin chao tries hard to provide a glimpse into Vietnamese culture, but falters along the way.
Though the show has successfully integrated several Vietnamese myths and stories, the lack of a tight script and efficient staging leaves foreign audiences unimpressed.
Xin chao, which opened December 11 in Ho Chi Minh City, revives the mythical romance between the Lac Long Quan dragon and Au Co fairy, who supposedly gave birth to the first Vietnamese people.
It also brings to stage the story of Hai Ba Trung (the Trung sisters), who raised a largely female army and expelled a Chinese occupation force in the first century.
The show also includes stories about modern Vietnamese heroes who have dedicated their lives to the development of the country.
The Fellini-esque stage show blends fantasy and reality, and is testimony to producer Laura Burke's research and in-depth knowledge of Vietnamese culture.
Burke, who has lived in HCMC for eight years, used the classic song Tieng trong Me Linh in the cai luong (southern opera) work of the same name as the background music of the show.
Her familiarity with the subject is evident in subtle details.
Director My Khanh said: "In the show, Lac Long Quan and Au Co carry their children in baskets on their shoulders. This is an image typical of Vietnam, especially in the northern countryside. Children are often carried in baskets to the market, to flee from war, or to go anywhere far away.
"Only someone intimately aware of Vietnam's culture can come up with such image," she said.
Yet, audiences left disgruntled. Vietnamese audiences felt a deep schism between an Oriental myth and the foreign perspective presenting it.
For instance, Au Co, one of the main characters, looks more like a Greek goddess than a Vietnamese fairy. Her romance with Lac Long Quan is played out in Western-style dances and stage play.
Foreign invaders, the evil forces in the story, have octopus-arms, a commonplace among the dark sides in ancient Greek myths.
This cultural conflict was a hard pill to swallow for the Vietnamese.
"The show is quite entertaining but has a long way to go at the artistic level," said a young member of the audience.
Despite pamphlets which included a synopsis of the script, a lot of people felt unsure about the stories and messages at the end of the show.
Tourists in the audience said they did not understand the significance of the dolls in the baskets, and were surprised when informed that they were meant to represent ancestors of the Vietnamese.
An American woman who has lived here for several years said it was an interesting show. She said she found it easier to understand with her knowledge of Vietnam's culture and history.
On the other hand, an Irish tourist, 56-year-old Joe Michael, was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying it was his first time in Vietnam and he couldn't make much sense of the show since he wasn't familiar with the country's history.
He said he had wanted to learn something about the country's culture, but perhaps he should read about it first and watch the show again to understand it better.
In an interview with Tuoi Tre, Burke said Xin chao was hard to understand probably because she didn't depict details realistically, but used symbolic images.
She said the pamphlets will be rewritten soon to help foreigners understand the context of the stories better.
In recent years, several shows to present Vietnamese culture and history to foreign tourists have failed miserably due to little or no understanding of what appeals to travelers and tourists.
Xin chao is the product of an expat's love for Vietnam, and an effort to breathe new life into the defunct circus arena and local theater in the September 23 Park.
But it still needs to make some changes to win the hearts of the Vietnamese and foreign audience.