A time and a place

The quintessence of tonkin takes audiences to village life, as depicted by folk art forms.

By thuy duong on December 10,2017 08:00 AM

A time  and a place

Photos: tuan chau hanoi jsc

A show is being staged in Hanoi for the first time in which the actors themselves are real farmers living on the land.

As the name of the show, ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’, infers, Vietnamese folk art and the spiritual life and cultural beliefs in northern Vietnam are showcased. ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ draws inspiration from the spiritual history of nearby Chua Thay (Thay Pagoda) telling the story of the pagoda’s founding by venerable monk Tu Dao Hanh and explaining the ancient union between religion and the monarchy. Audience members will experience six aspects of the north’s culture: poetry, Buddhism, nostalgia, music, painting, joy, and festivities. The show takes the audience back to a pristine time in the countryside, where they will feel the sacred atmosphere and the cultural crystallisation of the land with thousands of years of literature.


The spectacle begins with a scene of noisy fishermen sweeping their paddles through the water and calling out to each other. After a lullaby emanates from a thatched hut, the venerable monk Tu Dao Hanh steps out into the mist, striking his wooden bell and praying for a peaceful life for his people. From the steps of the Zen Master, a lotus blossoms. Tu Dao Hanh is known for his humility and generosity towards the poor. Legend has it that he invented water puppetry to depict the lives of the rural population. Since then, the art form has become part of Vietnam’s cultural and spiritual life.

Audience members gain an insight into the culture of northern Vietnam, the history of building the provinces of the Red River Delta, and the lives of the people. While water puppetry focuses on reflecting myths and legends through stories, ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ has live performers ‘dance’ on the water and tell stories of everyday life.

‘No one can better express the authenticity and vibrancy of the cultural, spiritual and religious life of the northern countryside than the people who live there,’ Hoang Nhat Nam, director of ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’, said of his three-year experience living and working with the actors from Da Sy village in Sai Son commune, Quoc Oai district, on Hanoi’s outskirts. ‘They don’t just “act”; they showcase their daily lives on stage and view the audience as visiting “friends”. Their attitudes inspire us to overcome the hardships and pressure from work. And I’m truly grateful to them.’

A time  and a place

The main stage is a 4,300 sq m lake with a backdrop of Sai Son Mountain hidden in the mist, surrounded by rice fields and lush green trees. In addition to the dancers, who are students from the Vietnam College of Dance, the 100 other actors are all villagers.

‘It took nearly a year for us to persuade the farmers, who only know about cultivating their fields, to become actors under the spotlight,’ said Cong Vu, one of the producers. ‘By day, they work their fields while their children go to school, but as night falls they transform into “artists”. Our oldest artists are over 80 years old, while our youngest is a ten-year-old boy.’

‘I’m a fortunate traveler and have had many chances to watch spectacles in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, and Vietnam,’ said Tina Do from Hanoi, who has seen ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’. ‘There’s no doubt the show is worth seeing. It’s the equal of international productions in terms of sound effects, lighting, and technical effects on the stage.’

The producers of ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ invested nearly $100,000 on modern equipment to create the unique effects in the lighting and sound systems. The theatre itself is an engineering masterpiece. A natural lake was transformed into a stage, including a state-of-the-art hydrothermal system that raises the 15-ton Thuy Dinh (Water Pagoda) from under the water in less than a minute. With Sai Son Mountain as the backdrop, they also had to develop a unique illumination system to light up the hills, 1.5km away, using 40 lamps of 1,500 watts.

A time  and a place

‘When Thuy Dinh came up from the water, I couldn’t stop clapping,’ Tina Do said. ‘Each part of the scene was elaborate. I eagerly waited to see what came next. With hundreds of actors and an elaborate script, paying VND800,000 ($35) for a ticket is acceptable.’

Other great scenes do indeed follow the water puppetry show in front of Thuy Dinh. The audience burst with emotion as four beautiful girls stepped out from a Hang Trong folk painting of ‘To nu’ (a collection of four paintings showing four young Vietnamese women with long hair and long dresses, standing in four different poses: one playing a flute, one holding a Senh tien - a combination of clapper, rasp, and jingle made from three pieces of wood and old Chinese coins, one holding a fan, and one holding a moon-shaped guitar). The combination of lights, music and the actors’ interactions with mapping techniques and projectors created a wonderful moment, as if audiences were in the fairyland scene. It’s probably the most beautiful scene in the show.

Other Tonkin quintessences were ca tru (ceremonial singing), quan ho (love duet singing) and hau dong (a mediumship ritual). Scenes simulating Vietnamese students going to exams in ancient times and the Goddess worshipping procession were also reproduced on stage.

During the 60-minute-show, the audience is also thrilled by lively dragon boat races and brilliant fireworks but also sometimes subdued by scenes of people praying to Buddha or of village scenes with flocks of dragonflies.

‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ is designed to give local people, and especially young people, a deeper understanding of their heritage and create a good impression about Vietnamese folk culture on international visitors, according to a representative from the show’s producers.

With total investment of over VND500 billion ($22.2 million), the Tuan Chau Group expects that ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ will become a ‘must-see’ show for any visitor to Hanoi and where they can gain a glimpse into Vietnam’s rich folk culture.

Located 25 km west of Hanoi’s city center, ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’ occupies a large space at the Baara Land Entertainment Complex, close to Chua Thay, a special national heritage and one of the oldest Buddhist pagodas in Vietnam. Chua Thay can be easily visited in conjunction with a trip to see ‘The Quintessence of Tonkin’, which helps frame the spectacle.

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