Originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam, water puppetry (Múa rối nước) is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century. Today’s Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition.
How the art was born is quite simple. Since Vietnam was, and mainly still is, an agricultural nation, rice paddies are the place where most Vietnamese people spend the majority of their time. In the flooding seasons, the farmers have a lot of free time while the paddies are being flooded. So, they made a wooden dolls and started to play in the flooded rice fields. Thus, water puppetry was born. The original water puppet festivals were literally held inside a rice paddy, with a small fake pagoda built on top to hide the puppeteers who stand in the waist-deep water.
Nowadays, the shows are usually performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers. Up to 8 puppeteers stand behind a split-bamboo screen, decorated to resemble a pagoda or temple, and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms hidden beneath the water surface.
The water acts as the stage for the puppets and a symbolic link to the rice paddy. It also hides the puppet strings and puppeteers’ movements, improves the musical and vocal acoustics, and provide a shimmering light effect. The puppets enter from either sides of the stage, or emerge from the murky water.
A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music in a performance while chèo, a form of Vietnamese opera, singers sing songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets. Sometimes, the musicians and singers interact with the puppets during a performance, yelling warnings or encouragements to a puppet in need.
Water puppetry is one of the oldest and most interesting Vietnamese traditional art forms that is still in existence today. Be sure to check out at least one performance at one of the special theaters dedicated to the art when you visit Vietnam.