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Thang Long Water Puppets

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Water puppet theatre which travels aound the world

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      06.06.2011 22:36
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      Traditional Vietnamese entertainment form

      When I visited Vietnam last year, I was told that The Water Puppets were a must see in Hanoi. I had also been told that they were rubbish! When we got the opportunity to go for ourselves we thought we would form our own opinion. Apparently, according to our tour guide, the Thang Long theatre is the most famous one, which has been running years and considered the best in the country. You can see Water Puppets elsewhere in Vietnam, and it is a traditional art form that has been running for centuries. I believe we paid approx VND 100,000 (US$5 or £3.35) for a performance that lasts just under one hour. If you want to take photographs or video you must pay a small surcharge. They will ask you for this as you go in, but our guide advised us that this fee usually went into the attendants' pockets rather than towards the theatre. He suggested we kept our cameras hidden and then took them out after the first number. This proved to be good advice as this seemed to be what everyone else, including the locals were doing. The puppets move quite quickly and although the stage is lit the auditorium is dark, I found the Sports setting on my Canon to be the best way of capturing anything (providing the lady in front stopped moving her head around).

      The show started with the musicians and singers coming out, seating themselves to one side, and performing some introductory music for us. They used traditional instruments, that we had seen elsewhere in Vietnam, but were not typical outside if the region. They were all smartly dressed in traditional style costumes. I am not a big folk music fan, but I found the music quite a good accompaniment. There were two female singers who sang quite pleasantly. Female vocals in traditional Vietnamese songs tend to be quite high, and can sometimes sound a bit screechy, but these two ladies were pros and harmonised well. There was a hidden male vocalist for some songs. The introduction didn't last long and it was time for the puppets. The small stage had water on it, and a wooden house built at the back. The different puppets came out through a curtain below the house and 'danced' on the water. There were fifteen or sixteen different performances featuring different puppets. You get a small handout as you go in listing what each little performance is. This is quite invaluable as I am not sure I would have identified the Phoenixes in the Phoenix dance otherwise, or most of the others. It is also nice to know how long you have left to go before the end as well, as sadly I found them a bit boring.

      The puppets are wooden and are controlled by sticks at their base (under the water), the puppeteers would have to be bent over during the performance. There are quite a few of them though as they came out at the end to take a bow and I was surprised how many there were. The puppets are reminiscent at times to Punch and Judy type shows, and I have to say I was never really a fan. Fortunately at least there were no strings of sausages or hitting people with sticks. The songs are all sang in Vietnamese so I cannot comment if the lyrics complemented the performances, but I would assume so. The performances were mainly about mythical and actual creatures dancing and scenes of rural life. Each performance lasted 2-3 minutes but this varied.

      The Vietnamese are very proud of their water puppets, but I have to say they were not for me. I wouldn't go as far as to describe them as rubbish, as some of my friends did, but I am glad I saw them for myself, however I don't feel it is anything I really need to see again. If you are visiting Vietnam, then by all means check them out for yourselves, as this is apparently an important traditional form of entertainment. If you usually enjoy puppets, then you may appreciate it more than I did. The show is family friendly, although I would imagine younger visitors could find it a bit tedious. You can purchase puppets at the theatre (and you will see them in other gift shops, but not always as well made as the ones at the theatre). As it is so popular, tickets will need to be purchased in advance.

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