Soon after learning about this traditional art special to Vietnam- I put it on my must-do list for the country. We knew we would have multiple opportunities to catch a water puppet show so we put it off in Ho Ch Minh while we did other activities which could only be found there such as the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and so on. Our first glimpse of a water puppet theater stage occurred there, though, in the Museum of Vietnamese History. There was a room with a stage and seating off to the side of one of the museum rooms where you could catch shows at certain times. This show, while on a smaller “stage” than the show we ended up seeing, is allegedly quite good! We might have gone except that it was starting as we arrived so we didn’t have much time to debate the extra little cost (we were on quite a budget at that time). There were other options in Ho Chi Minh as well, but ultimately we ended up going to the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater after making it to Hanoi.
One special thing about seeing the show there is that water puppetry actually originated in north Vietnam (specifically in the Red Delta River area in the north) back in the 11th century. Apparently this was a form of entertainment used by villagers when their rice fields were flooded. They were sometimes used to celebrate the end of the season (and possibly on other special occasions). In the old days, they would build pagodas in the rice fields which could hide the puppeteers who would stand in the (waist to chest deep) water controlling the puppets. The water hid the puppet controls and served as a stage. Back then, they would also often be dealing with cold water which could have leeches and water-borne diseases in order to put on these shows.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater was established in 1969 as a way to preserve tradition and increase tourism. The puppets they use are carved from wood and are controlled with bamboo rods and string. Scenes and skits performed in the show address aspects of daily life for rural farmers like fishing and farming, as well as performances relating to folklore, festivals, and more. Water puppet performers from this theater have toured 40 countries to put on shows as well. If you’d like to get a glimpse of what to expect, you can check out some videos on youtube.
Anyway, this was one of the first things we did our first time in Hanoi. Our last 10 days or so in HCM was spent away from District 1 (location of a lot of the touristy stuff) and was during the period of Tet so we had plenty of time to get work done and were able to go out and sight-see pretty immediately once we got to Hanoi. On our first day out we walked quite a bit but I believe it was the next day we chose to walk to the theater. It’s located near Hoan Kiem Lake and lots of other neat activities in the Old Quarter, but was quite a long walk from our Airbnb at the time.
When we got to the theater, they were sold out! Be aware that this could happen to you due to its popularity.
We did not find tickets available online at the time and it seems it may be fairly common for them to sell out early for the day and sometimes even the next day or two. So- we bought tickets for the next day, got some coffee (for Kyle) and tea (for me) and then wandered around the area proceeding to get quite lost, making our journey back hours longer.
The next day we were so exhausted we decided to just get a taxi down to the theater for our show time. The funny thing is that all of this could have been avoided because after our 10 days on Cat Ba we ended up staying at a place just around the corner from the theater! That’s how things go I guess! Fortunately, like everything else, transportation is pretty cheap there and our taxi ride only cost us about $2 and we walked the way back (pretty sure we got lost again).
Overall, we really enjoyed the show. I noticed from online reviews that it’s not everyone’s thing- but it was our’s! We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but here are some of the things we liked: 1. It was educational. I felt like I learned a little bit about the history of the area and even a little bit about current life for rural villagers in Vietnam. There were scenes of fishing, festival events, etc. 2. It was entertaining. The show even made me laugh out loud a couple times. 3. It was slightly interactive (like smoke for certain parts and dragons spraying out water- though not really at you per se). 4. The music. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra including a Dan bau, bamboo flutes, drums, and more plays as an accompaniment/accent to the show. There is also some Cheo (a type of opera) singing.
The only thing that sort of got in the way for us was that we couldn’t understand what the puppets were saying (their “voice actors” spoke in Vietnamese). We didn’t mind because we were in Vietnam, but do feel we might have missed a few things or could have learned more if it was in English or we knew Vietnamese. Still, with many parts the music, tone, and actions of the puppets helped communicate things to us.
Here is the info:
Address: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang – Hanoi – Vietnam
Cost: 100k dong (~$5)
Times: I see varying things online so I would just check in person. Show times are mostly in the afternoon/evening, I believe, though.
Other info: Shows last for one hour.
Combine it with: Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, Hoa La Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”), the Temple of Literature, the Museum of Vietnamese history, the Vietnamese women’s museum, the Hanoi Opera House, and more!
And if you can’t make it here there are a few other opportunities (such as these) across Vietnam to see water puppet shows of varying sizes.