I woke up early and sleepily trudged to the bus that would be taking me to one of the most authentic forms of entertainment in Vietnam, or so everyone said. I was skeptical. In my pre-coffee haze I started to question why an early morning water puppet show had sounded like such a good idea.
Maybe I was intrigued by the ambiguity involved with Vietnamese water puppetry. It takes two to three years of training in school to learn the secrets of crafting the bamboo puppets. Historically, some shows were performed in villages in secret so that overruling governments couldn’t copyright them.
Our bus arrived and we assembled into a small outdoor amphitheater with a pond-sized pool where you’d expect a stage to be. From seemingly out of nowhere, a cast of bamboo characters appeared on the water. They erupted into an intricately choreographed routine.
I finally awakened from my slumber after the first splash of water on my face. The energetic, multicolored puppets held my captive attention for the rest of the show.
The puppeteers came out from behind the back curtain at the end of the show to reveal a bit of the mystery. During the performance, they wade in the pond and operate the puppets from underneath the surface of the water.
It’s clear they’ve put a great deal of practice into the routine, and their beaming faces suggest the amount of pride they take in their performance.
Water puppets are integral to Vietnamese culture; they represent a commitment to detailed craftsmanship, and emphasize the significance of education. The puppets have been used in the rice and rain ceremonies. They even suggest a certain gender division of labor. Our speaker tells us that women were not allowed to know the secrets of the puppets until 1956. He says, “Since then, the shows have become more gentle and beautiful.”
The puppet show is one I recommend to anyone traveling in Vietnam. It’s bright, entertaining and bound to make you smile. It’s worth waking up for.