Mostly unknown outside of Northern Vietnam until the 1960s, the ancient art of water puppetry is one of the country’s more curious highlights. Rice farmers working in the red river delta conceived this unusual art form over 1,000 years ago, likely when farmers adapted conventional puppetry onto water after a large flood.
Although water puppetry is now performed across Vietnam and even tours the world, the most revered performance house is Thang Long Municipal theatre, located in the heart of Hanoi. At performances here, puppeteers stand waist deep in the water behind a screen, and operate the puppets on large rods to give the impression that the figures are moving across the water. Performances involve between 7 and 11 puppeteers who usually train for at least three years. In the past, skills were passed from father to son, as villagers feared that daughters would pass on the secrets of water puppetry when marrying outside of the village.
The performances are accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music played on drums, cymbals, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes, and a single stringed guitar. The music is an integral part of the show, with the instrumentalists often shouting words of encouragement to the puppets. The shows draw from both human and animal puppets to depict traditional Vietnamese folk tales and legends, such as the Legend of the Restored Sword of King Le (the story of Hoan Kiem Lake and the giant tortoise), a boy riding a buffalo whilst playing a flute, and fire breathing dragons dancing on the water, complete with fireworks.
If used on a daily basis, the average lifespan of a water puppet is four months, meaning that some villages in Northern Vietnam are able to maintain their income and livelihoods on manufacturing water puppets.