Water puppetry is an unique art that originated in Vietnam’s wet rice civilization, when farmers from the Red River Delta near Hanoi created water puppets or as its known here in Vietnam, mua roi nuoc. During flooding of the monsoon season in between crops, farmers introduced water puppets to entertain themselves and their families with plays about famous events in Vietnamese history, such as battles or things that had happened in that village.
This way of traditional storytelling has of course been reaplced by TV, but along with traditional theaters like Tuong and Cheo, water puppetry has raised its role on the traditional stages that needs to be preserved. Puppeteer Phan Thanh Liem has become the vanguard in preserving and promoting this folk art after opening a stage for water puppetry performances in his house.
We came to visit Liem’s house on a very special day – Mid Autumn or “Tet Trung thu” which is a holiday for children in Asia, and water puppet used to be a favor gift for kids years ago in Hanoi. The zigzag way that leaded to his house was also very interesting to see how locals’ live in this area of the city.
The 4-story house is surrounded by puppets and many of them have been hand made by Liem. Before performing his amazing work, Liem introduced us some things about his family and history of Water puppety Art, while his wife was inviting us some traditional sweets and black tea of Vietnam. Liem was born in a family with seven generations that have been preserving water puppetry in the northern province of Vietnam. His father, the famous puppeteer Phan Van Ngai, made chu Teu (a humorous farmer) puppet, which is displayed in France’s Louvre Museum. Mr. Ngai also helped create the mobile water puppetry stage. And right now, Liem’s younger son has been showing his early talent by following his father for the puppets. What an adorable family!
Liem’s new stage includes a small semi-circular pool, which is is decorated with artificial banyan trees, bamboo trees and the puppets, of course. It does not occupy much space for performances and also saves water. With these items, he has taken water puppetry to many places in and outside of Vietnam. In 2008, he became a member of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA).
Starting the show, Liem dipped himself halfway in cold water behind a velvet curtain and directed three to four puppets to perform various tales from the countryside and the city such as modern issues about racing and breakdancing, or kylins dancing, etc. Mr. Liem played the recording of the cries of insects to naturally take the audience into the water puppet realm as if they were attending a true village festival on a summer night. Half way into the show, the audience was invited into the water pavilion to sleeve up their folds, take hold of the controls and touch the puppets to discover how these items were made to be as flexible and lively as advanced robots. Liem’s wish is to preserve and promote this art, with his stage; audiences not only watch the show but also get a chance to explore the art. He said if these were applied in the tourist sector, this model would not only generate economic benefits but also actively promote Vietnamese water puppetry art worldwide through each of the audience members.
Our Indochina Travel team left the house with a beautiful puppet for each of us. We would later come back here many more times with happy children and their families with a hope that "understanding it is to fall for it, thus lovesick customers will come again and again," Mr Liem said.
If you are traveling with your children to Vietnam, we look forward to taking you to meet Liem for a private show to enjoy this very special traditional water puppetry art that he has such passion for. No trip to Vietnam with the kids would be complete without learning about the water puppets.