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Day 87 – Water Puppets Are Awesome

May 29, 2010

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam – Saturday, May 29, 2010

Today was the first day I’d be traveling alone since Hue because Michelle and Ruben were headed to Sapa. I decided to book a seat at that night’s water puppet show. Just another wild Saturday night for me.

I spent the day writing and doing errands. As night fell, I grabbed dinner then hit the puppets at 9:15 p.m.

Turns out water puppets are awesome. Hey, I’m as surprised as you.

The art of Vietnamese water puppetry supposedly grew out of the rainy season. Farmers would use the flooded rice fields as a stage for entertainment. The wooden puppets usually depict humans and animals and most have articulated limbs. The mechanisms that control movement are hidden in the murky water. Some puppets are attached to underwater poles while others sit on floating platforms and are then attached to poles. Most of the time, the puppets appear to float on the water.

Sounds like a recipe for a good time, right?

The theater darkened over the water stage and the Vietnamese musical troupe plied us with a traditional (I think) tune. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lady playing a weird Vietnamese one-string instrument called a dan bau. I couldn’t understand how it worked. The lady sat at a long wooden instrument with a wooden bulb on one end that had a twisted wooden stick jutting out of it. Her left hand wiggled the stick left and right while her right hand seemed to pluck at spots in the air. I could only make out the sound of the instrument when it had a solo. Otherwise, I couldn’t match any sound to her movements. I want to play with one so badly. I want to understand. The musical part of my brain demands it.

Then the puppets came on. They’d run through a short vignette accompanied by the orchestra. The puppeteers would provide voices while the females in the bad would act as the chorus, often answering what the puppeteer or narrator said. At least that’s what I think was going on—it was all in Vietnamese.

The best part was watching the puppets move through the water. As primitive as the articulation is on the puppets, they move surprisingly lifelike. The fish puppets moved like fish. You’d swear if you threw a lure into the water, you’d pull one that you could take home and grill and eat.

The dragons in one vignette chased around a ball in the water, batting it back and forth. At one point, a puppet caught a fish while standing on a boat. One second, the fish puppet was swimming in the water; the next it was on the human puppet’s hook. Creatures would emerge from the murky water. Puppets paraded around the edge of the pool. Boats would bob in the water as if buffeted by waves. Human puppets would swim through the water paddling their arms.

Who knew you could do so much with wooden puppets? This is all the more remarkable considering some of these things weighed over 25 pounds.

All the while the band played along in perfect time, sometimes providing sound effects for the action on the water.

When the show was over, the puppeteers emerged from behind the partitions to receive their applause. I was surprised at the depth of the water, which was nearly waist high. Back in the day, I guess puppeteers would often suffer from waterborne diseases. All the ones at this show wore hip boots, presumably to prevent worker’s comp claims.

Best of all, the show’s not that long. It actually leaves you wanting a bit more, which is the sign of good entertainment. It doesn’t wear out its welcome.

The kids loved it, too. You could hear kids oohing and aaahhing along with the adults. One little French girl kept running up to the edge of the pool to lean over to get a closer look. Her dad kept having to retrieve her when she started to lean over into the pool.

Best of all, it cost only 60,000 dong ($3.05). That’s some good value for the money. There are shows that run frequently in the afternoon. Pick up your tickets early in the morning so you can get good seats. If you’re taking pictures, the best seats are probably a bit to the right of center in the second or third row. From there, you could probably take pictures of the puppets with the band in the background.

Be sure to pick up a free program from the stand by the entrance to the seating area itself. It explains what’s happening in each vignette. I wish I had.

Even then, I had a good time. Next time you have a chance to spend Saturday night with some puppets, I say go for it. Just be sure your puppeteer rubbers up beforehand; no sense in having disease on your conscience just so you could watch.

GALLERY: Click through to see close-ups of puppets, pictures of traffic, shots of a martyrs’ memorial with an adjacent big board counting down the days to Hanoi’s 1,000th anniversary, and pictures from one of Hanoi’s night markets.

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