Unlike the shadow puppetry found in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the puppet shows held throughout Vietnam take place over a waist-deep pool of water.
It's worlds away from the modern entertainment experience: puppets move jerkily along the water's surface, their puppet-masters hidden from view behind a screen and the murky water. Musicians on either side of the pool provide vocals and music with traditional instruments.
(The secret of how puppeteers control the puppets from beneath the water has been closely guarded for centuries – see if you can figure it out!)
A Typical Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
Don't expect realistic movements or intricate costumes found at puppet shows in other parts of Asia. The wooden puppets used in Vietnamese water puppet shows are handmade and can weigh up to 30 pounds each! The stage and puppets are awash in vivid colors; colored lights and a foggy mist over the murky water add to the mystery.
In the keeping of tradition, Vietnamese water puppet shows are typically performed with no English. The language makes little difference; the theatrics of the colorful puppets and the constant wonder of how the performers can hide beneath the water is enough to keep the water puppet shows entertaining!
At the end of each performance, the eight puppeteers typically come out of the water to take a dripping bow.
The History of Vietnamese Water Puppets
Water puppet shows are thought to have originated around the Red River Delta in North Vietnam sometime in the 11th century. The first Vietnamese puppet shows weren't just for the entertainment of villagers – the shows were thought to keep the spirits entertained enough that they would not cause mischief.
Simple stages were constructed around flooded rice paddies; puppeteers regularly suffered from leech bites and other problems from standing in the murky water for so long.
Water puppet shows haven't changed much since those early years; typical themes are deeply rooted in rural traditions such as planting rice, fishing, and village folklore.
How Vietnamese Water Puppets Work
The secret of how water puppet shows work has been kept quiet for centuries. The puppeteers even have their own dialect and codewords to prevent someone from overhearing talk of a particular technique.
Trying to figure out exactly how puppeteers can control the intricate movements blindly is part of the magic of each water puppet show. Great shows of skill include passing objects from puppet to puppet and other coordinated movements which have to be done by instinct rather than sight.
The musicians providing voices for the show – who, unlike the puppeteers, can see the puppets and their movements – sometimes shout codewords to warn the puppeteers when a puppet is not where it should be.
Water Puppet Shows in Hanoi & Saigon
Wherever tourists congregate in Vietnam, you'll find a popular water puppet production holding regular performances.
In Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the most popular water puppet show is unquestionably the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Located inside of a giant sports complex between Tao Dan Park and the Reunification Palace, the Golden Dragon show regularly sells out.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in Saigon has three daily shows – 5pm, 6:30pm and 7:45pm. Tickets cost US$7.50 for shows lasting about 50 minutes each.
Address: 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Location on Google Maps)
Phone: +84 8 3930 2196
In Hanoi, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the place to visit for this traditional artform, the only water puppet show running 365 days a year. You can't miss it, as it's located next to Hoan Kiem Lake and within walking distance of the Old Quarter and many other Hanoi attractions.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre has four daily shows – 4:10pm, 5:20pm, 6:30pm, and 8pm, with the addition of a 3pm show during the busy winter season between October and April. Tickets cost VND 100,000 (about $4.40, read about money in Vietnam).
For either show, you can purchase your tickets in advance from the ticketing window. You can save $1 or more on admission by purchasing your ticket directly from the theater rather than from travel agents and hotel receptions who tack on a commission.