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Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre

It's all quite a spectacle.

Historians would have you believe that Vietnam's art of water puppetry, or Mua Roi Nuoc, was also once present in China.

Whether or not this is true is open to debate, but the fact remains that today this art cannot be found anywhere in the world but Vietnam. And because of its traditional link to the earth, water and rice growers themselves, water puppetry has often been called the "Soul of the Ricefields."

Puppeteering Through Time

The exact time when water puppetry began in Vietnam is not known, but an early record of the art was found on a stone stele dating back to the 11th century eulogising the merits of King Ly Nhan Tong. After a period of rapid development from the 11th-14th centuries, the art of water puppetry escaped the confines of the royal palaces of the Le and Nguyen dynasties and began showing up at village festivals and ceremonies, thus jump-starting the development of the country's traditional stage arts.

At that time, famous puppetry guilds began to appear around the country, concentrated mostly in Red River Delta provinces and other northern midland areas. Water puppetry reached its height of popularity among Vietnamese people during the 18th century, when many Mua Roi Nuoc troupes started offering audiences a wide range of performances.

In the past, and in some places still today, rural folks would sit on the edge of a pond to watch the performance. Since then the art has developed into an important part of Vietnam's cultural heritage.

And although hundreds of types of puppets and performances can be found throughout the country, the art is still mostly concentrated in northern and central Vietnam.

From Battlefields to Rice Yields

Keeping the water puppet tradition alive in Hanoi.

Watching a water puppet show, one gets a general picture of the daily activities typical to Vietnam's rural areas. A water puppet show is in many ways a two-hour enactment of the main aspects of Vietnamese life and history - and the building and defending of the country against the forces of man and nature.

These show are often used to depict events in the country's history. Important national happenings like the Trung Sisters' Uprising Movement against the Han invaders and the Battle over the Bach Dang River led by famed hero Tran Hung Dao are typical examples of historical scenes one might see portrayed in a water puppet show.

Scenes such as farmers both meticulously caring for their ricefields and enjoying what free time they can muster as they relax between harvests are also common themes.

But whether waxing historical or showing a bit of good old farmer fun, the outfits worn by the puppets in these shows are always representative of the periods in which the tale is set.

"How Do Those Wooden Guys Move?"

To perform the show, the puppeteers themselves hide behind a long screen. From behind the screen they manipulate the wooden puppets with bamboo rods while standing chest-deep in water to enact dramatic scenes using the water's surface as a stage floor. The surface area is usually about four to five metres long and three to four metres deep.

The amazing thing is that despite all this water the puppets never actually get wet, unless of course the scene calls for them to go diving underwater and popping back up again.

A traditional Vietnamese band sits to the side of the stage and accompanies the show, while those people singing and doing the puppets' voices sit next to the puppeteers.

Traditionally such puppets could be up to one metre tall. They were made from the wood of a jackfruit tree and painted with a special substance extracted from what was known as a "tree of paint" (cay son), with a few other ingredients added in.

The common backdrop for the stage is the image of a communal house, or dinh, with its curved red roof. The stage structure is designed to look like a real dinh and is made of either bamboo or brick. Mobile theatres use only bamboo for easy transportation.

The virtual emcee of a water puppet show is the Chu Teu (Little Teu), a tiny and comical wooden figure of a four year-old. His belly is usually exposed and he wears either an unbuttoned red vest or just a loincloth.

Teu is the first puppet to take the stage from behind the screen. The smiling Teu announces the show with some merry bits of song and then vanishes again.

The band starts playing the first scene then begins as the characters take their places "onstage."

During the show the drum is the lead instrument, changing tempo throughout to create different feelings to match each particular scene. This drum is accompanied by a range of other instruments such as cymbals, two sided drums known as "trong com, " flutes, gongs, one-stringed monochords, ancient-style guitars and other traditional instruments typical of northern Vietnamese Opera, or "Cheo."

Hanoi's main centre for water puppetry is the famed Mua Roi Nuoc theatre at the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake. In Ho Chi Minh City water puppet performances can be found at the Museum of History or the War Remnants Museum.

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