Travel Report: Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Hanoi, Vietnam.
I’d never seen a water puppet performance before. In fact, I hadn’t been aware it was even a thing until I started planning my trip to Vietnam. The more I read, the more I realised seeing a water puppet show would be an unmissable experience during my travels around the country.
They say the art of Vietnamese water puppetry dates back to the 11th century. Known as Mua Roi Nuoc, historians have traced the unusual performance back to the Red River Delta villages of Vietnam’s rural north. Literally, we’re talking about dirt poor farmers splashing around in their rice paddies with handmade puppets. Apparently they believed such performances kept evil spirits away from their crops. Really, you couldn’t make it up.
Today water puppetry lives on in a number of high profile theatres across the country. One of the most prestigious groups plies their trade in Hanoi at the respected Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It stands right in the heart of town on the northeastern bank of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Back in 2018 the theatre had performances running all day between 08:00-18:00, seven days a week. Thus you could turn up at your leisure, grab a ticket and be in your seat within the hour. And that’s just what I did one afternoon, quite spontaneously. Mainly in order to rest my weary feet and escape the sapping heat.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait at all. It was mid afternoon and I’d caught the theatre in sleepy mode. The woman at the ticket booth told me there was a show starting in twenty minutes. Hence I got my ticket and made my way up the main staircase, where I found the theatre door half open, bathed in a hypnotic blue light.
I’d read that visitors usually get searched and charged a separate ticket for their cameras. However, I didn’t even see a doorman that afternoon. Consequently, I was able to slip quietly inside the half empty theatre and take my seat without any extra charge.
It was almost silent in the theatre, just the occasional whisper and the clicks of various cameras. A still, four square metre pool serves as the stage, framed by the elegant form of a traditional pagoda. That’s where the puppeteers, unseen for the entire performance, weave their magic behind a bamboo screen.
Within minutes the musicians arrived, four on each side of the stage, and began setting up their instruments. Following the briefest of sound checks, they launched into their opening number, a heady mix of high-pitched vocals, thumping drums, clanging bells and dancing horns.
I certainly wouldn’t call the music beautiful, but it definitely gets your attention. Creating, I’d say, a sense of foreboding for the events that unfold. Moreover, they say that the pool enhances the musical and vocal acoustics, the competing sounds bouncing off the water and echoing around the venue.
Mua Roi Nuoc.
The show I saw that afternoon lasted for an hour and consisted of a dozen short scenes depicting ancient mythology and traditional Vietnamese life. A flurry of bamboo flutes hails a royal procession, while a cacophonous explosion of drums and cymbals sees a group of farmers fleeing from the unwanted attention of a fearsome dragon.
The puppets themselves are gorgeous, lacquered wooden creations that glide effortlessly across the pool. I was surprised to learn how heavy they are (up to 15 kilos apiece), especially when you consider how fast and skilfully the puppeteers manoeuvre them around the stage.
For the most part you don’t see the attached bamboo rods and strings. Though if you really focus you can catch the odd glimpse here and there through the water. Photographing the action proved exceptionally challenging and indeed I ended up discarding most of them. Furthermore, my attempts at video proved far from satisfactory, as I was too far back in the audience to get right into the action.
Nevertheless, it was a fun and unique experience that is surely not to be missed for anyone spending even a short time in the country. I liked the slapstick humour that permeates some of the scenes. Such as when a school of fish give a boat of frustrated fishermen the runaround.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
I also appreciated how the musicians interact with the stories. A warning shout, for example, from the concerned flutists ensures one puppet dodges a dragon’s killer blow right at the last moment. Phew! Keep in mind that the performance is a strictly Vietnamese language affair. Not that this should put you off in any way, as the spoken word is kept to a minimum, with a reliance on the visuals to bring the simple narratives to life.
At the end of the show the puppeteers came out to bow before the audience and drink in the applause. With wide grins, and in a few cases a triumphant punch in the air, they clearly take a lot of pride in their craft. Their enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it’s virtually impossible not to exit the theatre with a grin all of your own.
Back in the main hall I found myself gravitating towards the gift shop. I’m not usually one for souvenirs, but these puppets are wonderful creations with bags of charm. Could I maybe fit one into my backpack? Hmm, not these ones. Which was a pity, because at 600.000 VND (around $26) they’re actually reasonably priced.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Happily, I found a range of smaller models. After much deliberating I ended up purchasing a diminutive fisherman, complete with a little rod and a fish dangling at the end of the line. As I recall, it was no more than a few dollars and easy enough to fit into my backpack’s front pouch.
A visit to Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is an excellent opportunity to experience an authentic slice of Vietnamese culture. And at just 100.000VND for the cheapest tickets (£3.30/€3.70/$4.40) it won’t be troubling your wallet. In today’s COVID era it’s best to check in advance what’s going on with showtimes and social distancing rules. Check out their website for more info.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
Like these? Then why not have a leaf through my articles from across Vietnam.
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Your travel report is always interesting . Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading, and for your kind words! Have a great weekend.
You are most welcome. Have a wonderful weekend too!
I didn’t know it’s a thing! I spent all last year in Vietnam but those theaters were probably closed due to covid anyway. I love Vietnam and I already plan to go back there so this show goes on my to-do list for sure!
Hey, thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Happy to have highlighted something new and yeah, you’re almost certainly right about the theatres being closed because of COVID. I hope you manage to catch a show on your next visit.
Interesting what you have here, especially water puppetry. It’s so unusual and fascinating! Great report!
Thanks for reading Divi!
Now, I’ve learned something new on this Saturday … never knew about a water puppet show in Vietnam (or anywhere else for that matter). This was quite interesting – ah, the things you see in and around our world 😁.
Yeah, a pretty unique travel sight! And another string in Hanoi’s considerable bow. Thanks for reading!
What an interesting local culture experience. I have never heard of water puppetry before. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Cheers Allan, glad to have offered a window into this curious tradition.
I’d never heard of Water Puppets. That’s why your posts are always so interesting. You take me to places I want to see and places I need to see. This one was a need to. Thanks. I would have missed it all.
Thanks Memo, glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I can convince the players to put on a special performance in Oaxaca. For you, Mary and the geckos.
Have never come across a Water Puppet Theatre before but it sounds intriguing and so clever that they are able to disguise the strings from the audience. Something else to look out for when we eventually make it to Vietnam. Hope your weekend is going well. Marion.
Thank you Marion, it seems most readers hadn’t heard of water puppetry. I guess it’s largely unique to Vietnam. Enjoy your weekend too!
Very interesting and great sharing, Leighton!
Ah now this is something we DID do in Hanoi – on a whim, like yourself. It was a properly unique experience, not least because it was so incongruous to see something so like children’s entertainment taken so seriously by the paying public. We found some of it extremely amusing – but had to stifle any laughter until the slapstick scenes when we could join in with the “permitted” laughter. Your descriptions bring it all back to life and the memory of it floods in (intentional pun), Really pleased we experienced it, really good to read about your similar experience.
Ha, I too had to stifle laughter during a few inappropriate moments. You’re right, the Vietnamese take water puppet seriously! Thanks for reading. Appreciate the ‘like’ for this one too!
Like others, water puppetry is new to me, and I’ve been to Hanoi and also seen a Chinese puppet show. Thanks for sharing your visit and the video was helpful. The value of this experience far outweighs the cost of admission..
Hey John, glad you enjoyed this window into Vietnamese water puppetry. Where in Hanoi did you see the Chinese puppet show?
Hi Leighton. The Chinese puppet show was in Beijing. The water puppet show reminded me of it. Sorry for the confusion.
I’ve heard of puppet shows in Asia and Europe, and I might have gone to one in Europe, although I have no idea where and when. All the same, these kinds of shows are severely underrated, as they not only show the dexterous talent of the puppeteers, but also give insight into the country’s history through a unique craft. To check out the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre would be a worthwhile venture (and a great bargain!). Lucky you managed to slip in without getting charged extra for photography!
So glad you appreciate the craft Rebecca. Like you I have seen a few regular puppet shows, back in England I think. But like you I couldn’t say exactly where or when. Hope you’re having a great weekend.
If we take the time, there are so many interesting things to see! I kept wondering about they puppeteers- are they completely submerged?
It was my understanding that they were half submerged while they weaved their magic behind the screen. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for answering my question. 🙂
We loved seeing the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. It was an interesting site… walking all around the city to see things. We haven’t seen all the shows you visited… very interesting.
Thanks for checking this article out, glad you liked the puppet show as much as I did.
Hoping to get back to traveling soon..thanks for sharing your travel experience .
I’ve never seen a puppet performance, but it looks like an interesting experience, and one that doesn’t break the bank. Thanks for sharing. Linda
Thanks for reading Linda, and for contributing to the thread. I’m glad you enjoyed this puppet piece.
I have seen the puppets for sale but didn’t realize they were still doing performances… what a treat! The big kabuki theater in Tokyo offers short plays on the same idea, with musicians on the side playing traditional instruments. The full performances are hours and hours long. Nowadays, they have translated recordings you can pay for in various languages, so I could listen in English. Enjoyed this post!
Ah yes, I caught some Kabuki while I was in Tokyo. It was pretty cool, we just popped in for a single act. Thanks for stopping by!
So interesting! Definitely something I would like to see when visiting Vietnam one day. I wouldn’t be able to resist to buy one of those puppets, so beautiful and reflecting such an unique craftsmanship. Thank you for sharing your experience!
Cheers Nic! Appreciate your appreciation. I have been enjoying your writing on Dubrovnik.
Nice report. I recently visited the Puppet Museum in Lyon (France) and I don’t remember any mention of the Water Puppet Theatres in Vietnam which I have already read about. It is always rewarding to see them in situ anyway.
The puppet museum in Lyon sounds curious. I’m going to have a look, thanks for the tip!
I’m not sure I’m going to publish an article on it as I’ve collected very little material, it seems to me to be more for the entertainment of children than for the interest of adults.
Oh how great that you got to experience this! I have heard a lot about these water puppet shows and they just look so incredible. You really captured some amazing pictures of it all!
Thanks Meg, hope you guys are safe and well during the flash floods. Have you been affected much?
Thankfully we are safe. The flooding happened a ways north of where we are. So sad to hear about so much loss and damage in such a short amount of time.
Glad you and your family aren’t caught up in all that!
Thanks. I hope you and Sladja are okay and figuring things out with all the crazy job changes you’ve had go on lately.
We are, thanks. In the process of launching our own online teaching business! It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but it’s definitely time to put our long term future into our own hands.
That’s awesome! Sending all my well wishes for your success 🙂
This is something I really wished we’d been able to make time for during our brief visit to Hanoi, and reading your account makes me wish that even more!
Hey Sarah, glad you enjoyed this virtual Puppet Theatre performance. One to file under ‘next time’ should you ever make it back to Hanoi.