Hanoi

The Water Puppet Show in Hanoi at Thang Long Theatre

The water puppet show theatre is one of the main highlights for visitors in Hanoi. Water puppetry (Vietnamese spelling: múa rối nước) is a unique art form that grew out of Vietnam’s agricultural heritage.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long) is one of the biggest of its kind in Vietnam. It has also traveled to over 40 countries showcasing this unique art. On Tripadvisor, it was the 2020 Travelers’ Choice award-winner at the top of 29 Concerts & Shows in Hanoi.

History of Hanoi Water Puppet Show Theatre

History of Hanoi Water Puppet Show Theatre
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

Puppetry is one of the oldest and most popular art forms. Traditional puppetry in Vietnam dates to the Hung Kings Period 2879 BC and was commonly used in festivals. Puppet stages used to be set up outdoors.

One of the first forms of puppetry in Vietnam was similar to Marionette. However, the puppets were made from wood pieces of different shapes so that the joints could move.

Water puppetry can be traced to establishments that gathered around the Thang Long Capital City. This was the center of the Northern Delta (đồng bằng Bắc Bộ) in Vietnam. and the present-day Hanoi, hence the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Originally, the stage for water puppet shows were pavilions in the middle of a lake (thủy đình).

The members of a puppet group (phường rối) usually came from the same village or pagoda and gathered under one manager ‘ông Trùm’. They used puppetry to tell folk tales for ceremonies of worship, entertainment, even satire, and honed their skills in the process.

Cultural Significance of Puppetry

Cultural Significance of Puppetry
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

Rice paddy fields are deeply woven into the Vietnamese culture. That is to say, Vietnamese people have been close to water since the beginning of their history. Hence the birth of water puppetry which maintains this sacred bond.

Puppetry in general really bloomed in northern Vietnam around the 11th -12th centuries during the Ly – Tran Dynasties. Not only was it for royal entertainment, but it was also essential in local festive activities in temples and pagodas.

There were also big sized puppets to use as mascots in parades similar to carnival or body puppetry. This was usually held after a victorious battle in the war and the performance included soldier puppets fighting.

Structure of Hanoi Water Puppet Shows

Structure of Hanoi Water Puppet Shows
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

Nowadays, there are 18 amateur water puppet groups and 5 professional theatres with their own teams. Nonetheless, their main gigs are still local festivals.

Topics for water puppetry varies from the daily lives of farmers, festive activities, to Vietnamese folk tales and other literary works. In recent years, water puppetry has been incorporating modern themes from foreign literature, and the use of more modern equipment.

The Water Puppets

The Water Puppets
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

Water puppets don’t have the most intricate carving nor coloring, but are a simplified convention of representation. It’s just enough for the audience to know what the subject is and what they’re doing.

However, the visual component of the water makes up for that lack of vividness. It also covers the controlling mechanism and the puppeteers are partly or sometimes fully submerged.

The controls are similar to rod puppetry where a puppet is shaped around a central rod and more metal rods are used to manipulate the limbs. What really separates the two is the floating and steering mechanism and the techniques required.

The puppeteers usually have their heads above the water. Nonetheless, there are certain techniques that require them to fully submerge below the puppets and control them by muscle memory.

The Water Puppet Stage

The Water Puppet Stage
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

The three components of the stage remain the same to this day including a black curtain where the puppeteers hide, a four by four meter wide and one meter deep performing space, and an audience space.

The performances use live Northern Vietnamese traditional music like ‘ca trù’ and ‘chèo’. The instrumentals set the ambiance and the vocals aid in telling the story which has little to no dialogue. They also use different types of firecrackers to provide sound and visual effects.

Other Puppetry Sub-Genres

Other Puppetry Sub-Genres
[ by Thang Long Water Puppet Theater on Facebook ]

Vietnam also has other puppetry sub-genres that are traditional developments or introduced from other countries. The common ones include hand puppets or glove puppets (rối tay), pull string puppets (rối que and rối dây), Supermarionation (rối máy), shadow puppets (rối bóng), and mask puppets (mask puppet).

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

At the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, there are shows 5 times every day at 3 PM, 4:10 PM. 5:20 PM, 6:30 PM, and 8:00 PM. Each show lasts around an hour and the stage is air-conditioned with 300 seats.

As stated above, visitors don’t have to worry about the language barrier since there’s hardly any dialogue and you can infer the story from the performance. You can purchase an audio summary of the story but it’s not necessary.

History of the Thang Long Water Puppet Show Theatre

History of the Thang Long Water Puppet Show Theatre
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

The Thang Long Water Puppet Show started out as a theatre group of only 9 members in 1969. In the beginning, the theatre specialized in other sub-genres of puppetry and not water puppetry.

During the American War (1954 – 1975), these performances provided entertainment while promoting patriotism. After the war, the theatre was geared towards pop-up stages and performed mythical tales appealing more to children.

In 1990, the theatre started focusing on water puppetry in hopes of promoting this traditionally unique form of art. It started to gain huge popularity internationally and became one of Vietnam’s top puppet theatres. Nowadays, the theatre has properly organized personnel and a stage with modern equipment.

Visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

Visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
[ image from thanglongwaterpuppet.com ]

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is close to the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi. Tours around the Old Quarter also usually include the theatre.

You can book tickets in advance by calling their number 024 38249494 024 38255450. On their official website, a booking interface is under development but you can use booking agencies like Viator and Klook.

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