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Crowds flock to Hai Duong to watch the water puppets dance

Update: February, 14/2014 - 09:17
Paddy power: All the puppet artists are local farmers who have practised the art since they were at very young age. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

by Minh Huong

Hai Duong, a province in the heart of the Hong (Red) River Delta, is a famous tourist destination for water puppetry, a unique and traditional artistic display in Viet Nam.

While driving to Thanh Hai Village, 60km west of Ha Noi, for the show, I could not help thinking of the artwork I used to see in the small, temporary pond in my favorite city in Viet Nam.

However, instead of watching a puppet dancing in a small pond on a small stage at a concert, the charming commune presented something we will never forget: puppets dancing to live music in a real pond out in the open, under the shade of the bamboo trees, among the locals.

Puppet shows play an important role in Vietnamese culture, and some towns and villages throughout Viet Nam host their own productions.

Very light: The puppets are made of light wood from local fig trees which is easy to carve and light, which allows the puppets to float on the water.

When we first entered the village, residents pointed to a middle-aged man who was drying his rice on the ground, saying he was the leader of the water puppet performers there. Pham Khac Xoa, 45, is the head of the Thanh Hai water puppet group, and like most of his members, he's a farmer who stopped his work to share some of the secrets of his art with us.

As we headed to a small storage area where the group kept the puppets, Xoa said, he had practised this art since the age of seven and has learnt a lot from the village's experienced artists and visiting puppeteers.

According to Xoa, it's not known exactly when water puppets began making an appearance in Viet Nam, but villagers say it began in the lakes and waterways of the Song Hong (Red River) Delta, amongst the rice paddy fields.

The puppets are made of light pieces of wood taken from local fig trees, since these are easy to carve and are light enough to allow the puppets to float on the water's surface.

After being carved, the wood is dried, painted and assembled with arms, legs and heads. The puppets have strings that allow their limbs to be moved. These strings are attached before the puppets are painted.

We were taken to a newly built temple in the middle of the lake, where the performances are staged. This area has become a place where the villagers meet and talk and where festivals are held.

Centuries old: Water puppets first appeared in the 18th century and since then have featured at most village festivals. — VNA/VNS Photo Quy Trung

When we joined the crowds that had already gathered for the show, we were told that Thanh Hai's water puppets had first appeared in the 18th century and since then have featured at most village festivals, such as the beginning of the harvest.

Most shows usually have 10 different scenes and require between five and eight artists, who work behind the curtain. The puppeteers stand in thigh-high water to control their characters.

Spending hours in the water can be taxing for the farmers, and so they have to be in good health. Where they once had to sing and talk during the event, the performers now use recordings of their voices to allow everyone to hear them clearly.

We were lucky to have live music to accompany the production and even a chorus of singers to intensify the drama of the show.

When the dances were performed, I was touched by the sense of simplicity and purity surrounding these farmer-artists who spend much of their life in the fields and who rely heavily on good weather and good crops to prosper.

This is their chief artistic outlet, and it's one shared by the entire village. It's a strong representation of their lives, their hopes, and the beauty of Viet Nam's rural areas.

After a quick tutorial from these master puppeteers, one of us was invited to perform in the Dragon Dance, which is part of the overall show.

He had to control the smallest dragon, which is one of five to appear on the water. We were told that this dance symbolises good weather and good crops for the farmers.

Of course, he was not able to do it professionally but was able to make it move with the other dragons. When we saw him again after the dance, he was soaked from head to toe.

The lucky guy was quite happy and said it was much harder than it looked but added that he had had fun doing it. I wished I was him for a while, but then, I would not have had the chance to enjoy the entire show.

After we returned to the city in the late afternoon having enjoyed Hai Duong's specialties of green bean cakes, fish noodles and some fresh tea, we concluded that the area offers a wealth of things to see, do and eat, and it's the perfect distance from Ha Noi for a day trip. Whether it's to watch the show or take in the fresh air of the countryside, you'll find plenty to experience there. — VNS

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