With an explosion of sparks the scaly dragon burst from the water, twisting and writhing across the surface to the rapid rhythm of the drum. The dragon danced and whirled, stirring up the water as a cloud of acrid smoke from the fireworks rolled across the audience. We had guessed that Hanoi's water puppet show might involve water and puppets but a dragon dance accompanied by pyrotechnics was an unexpected bonus.
The art of water puppetry was developed in the rice paddies of Northern Vietnam with villagers entertaining each other when the fields were flooded. The puppets are controlled using bamboo poles, which stay beneath the surface of the water at all times. The puppeteers themselves stand waist deep in the water hidden from the audience behind bamboo screens.
The Hilarity of Water Puppet Humour
Some of the scenes were slices of traditional rural life: fishing, rice farming and herding ducks interspersed with a touch of slapstick humour. We saw a fisherman trying in vain to catch a fish but catching his friend instead and a duck herder that kept being outsmarted by a cunning, duck hunting fox. Despite the inherent comedy genius, not a single person laughed throughout the performance.
Mythical Water Puppet Creatures
The scenes involving legendary creatures were far more impressive. As well as the fire breathing, yet more dragons squirted jets of water as they spiraled across the pool. We also saw a pair of brightly coloured phoenixes dancing together in what turned out to be a mating ritual. After a few minutes, a giant egg popped up to the surface. Before long it had hatched and the baby phoenix joined the dance with its parents.
The Sound of Water Puppets
The water puppet show was accompanied by a small orchestra that sat either side of the stage. Some played instruments while others provided vocals and played the minor, largely superfluous speaking parts. The highlight of the musical score was the dan bau solo. This unusual instrument consists of just a single string and a wooden rod to add some vibrato. Performing a solo with it is quite an art.
Although we knew water puppetry was well established in Hanoi, we were impressed by how elaborate the performance was. Despite the questionable comedy value, it was highly entertaining. The short scenes were packed with colour, dancing and music along with a host of special effects. It was also an interesting insight into traditional rural life in Vietnam and a highlight of our time in Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Where Can I See a Water Puppet Show in Hanoi?
There are two water puppet theatres next to Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi. We visited Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
There is a ticket office at each water puppet theatre and both offer several shows per day. Shows can often be fully booked so it's a good idea to buy your ticket a day or two in advance.