Long ago, farmers in Vietnam's northern delta staged puppet plays on ponds and flooded fields to reflect and celebrate their daily lives. During festivals and holidays, villagers would gather to watch water puppet plays that revealed their patriotism and sincerity This form of puppetry is distinctive and unique, both in terms of the materials used and the storylines. To create the iconic puppets, artisans select light fig wood. The puppet comprises two parts: the carved body and the pedestal.
Hidden behind a screen, the puppeteers stand waist-deep in water and guide the wooden puppets via long bamboo poles that lie concealed beneath the water’s surface. The puppeteers employ rods and wires to move the puppets. The puppets take the forms of animals, mythical beasts and peasants working in the fields, catching fish, or celebrating.
Nowadays water puppet performances are increasingly elaborate. Accompanied by traditional orchestras or taped music, the shows feature special effects like smoke and fancy lighting. Yet the star of the show remains the water, which can be smooth and calm or stirred into a frenzy by coiling golden dragons. Water puppetry is closely associated with music. Accompanied by old tunes played on traditional musical instruments, water puppeteers portray scenes that are dreamy and gentle or wildly exciting.
The puppeteers must stand in cold, muddy water for hours. It takes great skill to manipulate the rods and wires in such a way as to create lifelike movements. Thanks to the puppeteers dedication, a wooden figurine is transformed into Teu the clown, whose round body and smiling face transports audiences to a rich imaginary world.
Today, this ancient art form is still practiced in many provinces throughout Vietnam, particularly in the northern midlands. Of the 14 water puppetry troupes still in existence, the best known is the Dao Thuc water puppetry troupe from Dong Anh, Hanoi. This troupe has been operating for nearly 300 consecutive years.
More than 20 artists in the Dao Thuc troupe remain devoted to this traditional art form, delighting modern audiences with famous tales like "Ba Khi Clown (Uncle Teu)", "Up in the hammockdown in the water" and "Buffalo sneaking through a pipe" and "Mr. Phung slays a tiger". To bring this art to a wider audience, the Dao Thuc troupe has also created some new plays, such as "Giving garlands at festivals", "Carrying portrait of Uncle Ho" or "Hanoi durag 12 days and nights". The Dao Thuc water puppetry troupe has performed all over the world and earned many national medals. Their shows celebrate Vietnam traditional arts and values.
Water puppetry gives foreign visitors to Vietnam insight into the nations agrarian roots. This ancient art is a kaleidoscope into Vietnam's traditional rural values.