by Thu Anh
Art troupes seek broader recognition as tourism magnet
Private art troupes have been striving for years to promote the traditional arts as a tourist attraction. Though they have had good results in recent years, amateurish pretenders and poor marketing among local tour companies have often held them back. Today, however, after upgrading their stages and polishing their performances, they are finally earning recognition.
The Rong Vang (Golden Dragon) Water Puppet Theatre, for example, which opened in 2007, is a favourite tourist destination in downtown HCM City. It offers two nightly shows that attract about 70 tourists, mostly foreign, to each performance.
Actor Huynh Anh Tuan, the theatre's owner, says he invested VND2 billion (about US$100,000) to upgrade the stage to better showcase Viet Nam's unique art of water puppetry. Tickets to the show are a reasonable VND60,000 (US$3).
Rong Vang, he emphasises, is a professional troupe. No amateurs allowed.
"We give quality performances by skilled artists," he says. "Viet Nam's rich and diverse traditional theatre, and puppetry in particular, should be made more accessible to tourists, so that it can be more valued and expanded."
Tuan says his profits could be higher if he invested even more in the company.
Vuong Tuan Hung, a theatre director who has 20 years of experience, has also taken up the challenge to offer shows tailored to foreign tourists.
In 2008, Hung and his staff opened the Minh Khang Stage, which has a staff of 15 singers, dancers and musicians who had formerly worked for professional State-owned art troupes like Bong Sen and Au Co. Their range of talent covers the musical and dance spectrum.
They specialise in dances of the Cham, Katu and Ede ethnic minorities, as well traditional music played on instruments like the dan bau (monochord) and tam thap luc (zither with 36 brass strings).
"Foreign visitors want to see a traditional music performance, but many troupes can't satisfy their needs. Many shows are inauthentic or simplistic," Hung says. "Unbelievably, very few of the 600 art troupes and performance companies around the city are able to find ideas for their businesses."
Linh Huyen, owner of the Mekong Artists Company, says that while traditional Vietnamese theatre has always held the interest of foreign tourists, it has not been promoted well enough in tour programmes offered by local tour agencies.
Huyen says that tourism can bring in money but it can also help to revive and maintain the arts.
Her company's Hon Viet (The Soul of Viet Nam) show, held twice monthly at the city's Opera House, features traditional music and dance styles from the northern, southern and central regions. The show has been a hit with tourists.
"One day, our efforts will finally pay off," she says.
Handmade toys enjoy favoured status among kids and adults
Nguyen Quang Phung, a HCM City vendor, has been making wooden and paper toys for 40 years. They are loved by children but also by adults.
"Many people see their childhood in my products. They decide to buy a traditional toy for their children because they want the kids to love it as much as they did," Phung says.
Some of his most popular toys are small drums, masks and puppets in red, yellow and blue, costing only VND40,000-70,000 (US$2-3.5) each.
"Traditional toys have a timeless charm that has enchanted children for generations," he says. "Some classic toys like puppets will never go out of style, even though high-tech digital games and gadgets are now popular."
The 60-year-old, who supports his family of six from toy-making, sells his products by driving around the city in a three-wheel vehicle. To attract customers' attention, he beats a drum.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van, a mother of two sons and one of Phung's customers, says that when she was a little girl, she "saw a friend in each of my puppets".
"I often buy traditional toys for my kids who enjoy playing with them," she says. "I believe the toys help children use their imagination and make up stories." — VNS