Water puppetry is performed in a chest-deep pool of water, with the water’s surface as a stage. The puppeteers stand behind a curtained backdrop.
Water Puppet is a unique art which has it origin in the delta of the Red river in the tenth century. The farmers in this region devised a form of entertainment using what natural medium they can find in their environment. In ancient times, the ponds and the rice paddies after harvest were the stage for these impromptu shows. This art form is unique to North Vietnam and only finds its way to the world stage in recent years as a result of the normalized relation with the West.
The water also provides the best setting for the puppeteers’ theme: day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience.
Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small folk orchestra.
Modern, water puppetry is performed in a pool of water with the water surface being the stage. The puppeteers stand behind a screen and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanism hidden beneath the water surface. The puppets are carved out of wood and often weigh up to 15 kg. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music accompaniment. Singers of Cheo (a form of opera) with origin in north Vietnam sing songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets.
Over the last decade, this ancient art has been rescued from near oblivion. Now there are four troupes in Hanoi. For generations of puppeteers, the craft involved water-borne diseases, rheumatism and leeches. They endured bitingly cold winter performances with the help of strong doses of nuoc mam (a fish sauce) and ginger tea. Today the Hanoi puppeteers wear waders.