BACK IN TIME

Most aspects of Vietnamese culture can be found in a single water puppetry performance.

By JOE A on September 21,2018 10:23 AM

BACK IN TIME

Photos: NGUYEN XUAN CHINH

The mythology of Vietnam is mixed throughout the simple activities to show how entwined the lives of the villagers were with the tales and history of the country. 

In most parts of Vietnam people have been living the same way for thousands of years. With such a long and unbroken history there are many traditional art and craft forms. Every town it seems is famous for some special touch of this or dash of that. In the capital Hanoi you can find vendors selling products that have possibly been made in their family for generations. These families will typically have one single trade, so to see a variety of specialties you’ll need to do some searching. Unless of course you decide to visit a highly-refined performance of water puppetry, where a multitude of skills from around the country come together in a single, spectacular display of Vietnamese culture.

A show usually begins with a troupe of traditional musicians playing on a side stage. They are an essential part of the performance, providing excellent accompaniment to the puppetry, alerting the audience to the mood of a particular scene, and raising the intensity when something especially important happens.

A normal band will have a zither, a lute, and a flute, all of which will be the Vietnamese versions of the instrument, as well as my particular favorite and “star” of all instruments, the “dan bau”. It’s a single string tied to a stick, and its sound is absolutely iconic. It can sound as sad and melodic as a weeping guitar or as eerie and spacey as a theremin, and in the hands of a master is worth the price of admission alone. Depending on the theater you attend there may be many other instruments. The show I saw featured a lady playing tiny teacups like castanets and the whistle of a bamboo water pipe; a uniquely Vietnamese choice of instrumentation.

BACK IN TIME

After the orchestra plays an introductory tune, your attention is drawn to the main stage. This structure commands awe even in the most meager of setups - a watery stage resembling a flooded rice paddy with a pagoda behind it to conceal the puppeteers and equipment. The cast of characters emerge from the pagoda and the fun begins. Every group of performers has their own selection of vignettes from daily life, but there are a few that are consistent through all the shows. Typically, you’ll see farming, fishing, catching frogs, children playing, a history lesson, some mystical swimming animals, and a funny boy with a pot belly called Chu Teu. All of these skits are voiced by the musicians and come with their share of casual and quirky joys that go along with daily connections between people.

The puppets themselves are surprisingly large. Those depicting people can stand over a meter tall, which combined with the weight of the wood gives an idea of the impressive abilities of the puppeteers. There are boats, buffalo, fish, frogs, and maybe even a few snakes, so watch out. All of the puppets are lacquered and painted in outfits from days long gone, before industrialization dressed farmers in flannel and blue jeans. And though the outfits are from another time, the activities can all be seen today in the fields and farms that adorn the countryside just out of town.

The first puppet we meet is everyone’s favorite little boy, Chu Teu. He is a common thread in all water puppet shows and a consistent favorite for the wit and attitude he brings. He comes out with his belly exposed and his face in a big smile, so you want to just pinch one of his fat little cheeks. He’s always up for a laugh, but sometimes can speak out of turn, as all children can. This is a clever technique used in the artform for saying things possibly taken as rude or controversial. It might not be okay for an adult to speak their mind or criticize the ruling class, but it is easy to forgive a little boy with a slap on the wrist and another pinch on the cheek for good measure. He is also the show’s narrator, speaking his mind and killing with laughter.

Next, we begin to meet the workers in the village - some women planting rice and some men plowing with buffalo. This is as quaint as real life but with a slightly better soundtrack. After that we cycle through the frog catching, fishing, and chasing critters off from stealing ducks.

Although these activities can seem a little basic, they give a very authentic view into the way almost every Vietnamese person that has ever lived has spent their days, complete with the fire breathing and water spitting dragons. Apparently before modern times, dragons and phoenixes were a much bigger threat than they are now, a fact that museums have conveniently left out of their information. There’s another little boy riding a buffalo and playing a flute. He is a common image throughout many of the traditional paintings seen in the country and is reminiscent of a carefree childhood spend on the back of the family buffalo blowing a tune on his flute. He is a little more picturesque that the modern equivalent of a kid on a motorbike playing on an iPhone, but we love both just the same.

Anther common thread throughout water puppetry is the telling of a popular myth or legend. Every time I have attended, the particular story is that of Hoan Kiem, or “the return of the sword”. The popular lake in Hanoi gets its name from this tale about Emperor Le Loi, who was granted power to beat invaders by a turtle in the lake as long as he was faithful enough to return the sword the turtle had given him to do so. Turtles in Vietnam go into the pantheon of mythical creatures - the only one of which to actually exist in real life - and all throughout Vietnamese mythological history turtles show up in trying times to help the emperor out of a predicament.

The show ends with a final dance from all four of the mythological creatures: turtles, dragons, phoenixes, and qilin (magical horses). The mythology of Vietnam is mixed throughout the simple activities to show how entwined the lives of the villagers were with the tales and history of the country. It might be easy now to Google for the weather forecast, but for millennia people used these legends and stories to explain and understand the world around them, so I love how easily the unreal flows in and out of the performance as it would have in the minds of the people we see.

There are two main theaters in Hanoi to view a water puppetry show, both of which come with stellar reviews and their own unique added bonus. The Thang Long Theater overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake offers an immediate view of national history, as the first steps outside bring you to scenery from the show. You’ll notice a temple on an island as well as iconography honoring the turtle who so memorably aided the Vietnamese emperor. There is also a water puppet theater at the Museum of Ethnology in Cau Giay district, which is outdoors and since it is a feature of the museum puts you in proximity to learning much more about the Vietnamese people as well as the numerous minorities living in the country. Both have multiple performances each day and are waiting to transport you back in time and give you a true flavor of Vietnam.

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