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Vietnamese Water Puppets

Not Just for Stages

Vietnamese water puppetry's stage (Photo: hanoicitybreaks)

Water puppetry is one of major styles of Vietnamese culture and art, which shows the creativity of the people; being that they used their environment as the mainstay of Vietnam was the wet-rice fields. Water puppetry simply comprised of two basic components, puppets and water.

The puppets, on land, were big, bulky creations that were cumbersome to move but on the water, placed on floating barges, viewed from a distance, these larger than life puppets became magical works of art.

Thuy Dinh, the Basic Setup

Thuy Dinh is the actual name for the art. There was just as much work that went into the set up as in the performance.

First: The Water pavilion – This was basically the stage setting and generally occupied the middle of the pond. In this pavillion there was a floating chamber of bamboo closed at the three sides with a bamboo screen hanging in the front, basically a floating barge with a screen. The puppeteers stood waist-deep in the pond just behind the floating screen in order to manipulate the puppets.

Second: The Actual Stage – the front of the screen, a square water stage of about 4x4 is where there have attached low fences, which surrounded the area where the puppets performed.

Third: The Audiences Seating– At the edge of the pond, on both sides of the stage, usually underneath the trees is where the audience was seated. The water puppet theatre was the main place at festivals. The audiences would flock to the water’s edge to get the best seats, with some of the children actually going into the water.

The Show

As I said already, these performances showed the culture of the people so the performances basically told stories of:

  • Everyday life activities of the people;

  • Useful entertainments that projected political sentiment and local desires.;

  • As with many of the traditional puppetry uses, plays of national heroes and historical events;

  • Traditional operas, similar to those done in buranku.

After more than 20 years of empirical rule, the Lam Son uprising occurred leading to a succession of leadership and the ushering in of the Le Dynasty in 1428. It was during this cultural reformation, if you will, that the traditional arts were brought back in. The Le dynasty attached importance to the traditional theater arts so the traditional opera became a staple.

The largest outside theatre has currently existed in Thay pagoda (Ha Tay), built in Long Tri pond, in front of the pagoda yard in the Later Le dynasty.

Later, though Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) only focused on developing Tuong, the folkloric puppetry art that still remains and is seen regularly in the villages today.

How Far Back?

So ow old is this art form? Historians are still arguing this. The history of establishment and development has been under close scrutiny of researchers for decades. The historical documents clearly show the operation of puppetry in Vietnam from the 10th. On the basis of craftsmanship, history shows that building palaces and pagodas were followed by theaters.


Just like today, the people looked for any reason to throw a party and with that festival came entertainment usually centered around the puppet performance in order to commend the work of the people, the building of structures, leadership birthdays, births, deaths, you name it, there was a festival thrown in honor of it.

Sound in the Water?

The main music used in the water puppetry performance is the music of Cheo which is the specific traditional art in the Northern plain. In addition to instrumentalists, there are Cheo singers. Music, songs, all in combination with movements of the puppets tat lead the audiences to understand the plays.

The main musical instruments used in the performances are:

  • Drum

  • Two-stringed fiddle

  • Flutes

  • Zither (had to look this up, had no clue what it was)

  • Monochord.

What Else Was Used?

In the water puppetry performance, many kinds of fireworks were also used to create vivid spectacle, to enhance the performance and direct the audience. These were every type of firework display that you could think of.

The Puppets

All of the puppets are made of fig wood. Chu Luong, the Vice-Director of Thang Long Water Puppetry Theater (a group that is keeping this art form very much alive) as well as an experienced puppet designer himself, said in an article written in VOV World (The Voice of Vietnam) that it is the best material for making these types of puppets. “Fig wood was considered useless because people couldn’t use it for cooking or furniture. It cannot be used for burning or making wooden equipment. Perhaps that was why Vietnamese people used it to practice carving things like puppets in their free time. People came to find out that the fig wood goes along well with water. It is the most endurable and suitable material for making water puppets.”

After the puppets are carved, they are painted with multiple coats of lacquer. This process includes 5 main stages to insure that they are durable enough to withstand multiple uses in the water. First, the cracks on the puppets get filled with the lacquer,hen the they get covered with nets for protection. After that, the mixture of Vietnamese lacquer and alluvium from the Red River will be applied to the puppets. This stage goes through a similar process, which gives the puppets and stage a waterproof surface. Next, the craftsmen will polish the puppet much like a spitshine given to dress shoes to insure a glossy shiny surface, but wait, this is only the basecoat, it then goes through the steps of being lacquered completely black and, when dried, then gets painted with its final colors and “spit shined” one last time before having clothes and control rods added.

The Puppeteers.

Water puppeteer controls the puppets behind the curtain (Photo by: Zing)

Vietnamese water puppets are generally manipulated by 2 main systems simultaneously: rods and strings that are positioned just under the water. Every puppet needs them, though the specific device for each puppet varies depending on the moves needed for that puppet.

The puppet is first controlled by a heavy duty string attached inside, running through loops on the side of the rod up to the hand of the puppeteers.

The second mechanism, the puppet’s base is directly attaches to a rod and paddle combination by which the paddle will rotate when the base moves, making the puppet spin around, or move in a certain direction, similar to a rudder on a boat.

Puppets have been known to weigh in excess of 30 + pounds out of the water so it requires a lot of effort to control it, not to mention performing in a fully animated manner, so don’t complain when your arm gets tired from 20 minutes of holding a foam puppet over your head.

Vietnamese water puppetry is awesome to watch and yet another form of puppetry that is part of the long history of the art form.

Just a heads up

Puppet Dude TV is slated to officially start in July on YouTube, so if there are any puppet topics you would like to see covered, drop me a note and let me know. Also, if you haven’t signed up for the Behind the Scenes newsletter, do so and I will keep you posted.


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