Nestled in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is the wonderful Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry in Vietnam can trace its roots back to the 12th century, when villagers in Northern Vietnam would perform plays for each other, using puppets, on flooded rice paddies. The tradition has endured, with several venues offering shows on specially created pools.
The puppets are made from wood and are controlled using long under-water rods and strings. Puppeteers are usually hidden from view by a screen, and traditional music and singing accompanies the show. The stories are told through songs, though these are, of course, in Vietnamese. The art gradually spread further south, probably as a result of commercial shows being performed. This form of puppetry is unique to Vietnam, and the Golden Dragon Water Theatre in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the main venues to see a show in Vietnam.
Having planned to visit a show in Hanoi and then not doing so, I was really excited to read about the water theatre in Ho Chi Minh City. I went about the easy to find box office outside and bought two tickets for a performance the same evening before continuing with my sightseeing. Having spent the day mooching about, I went to my guesthouse to change, being unsure as to how formal an event it was dress wise, then headed back to the theatre. There are a couple of large brightly painted free-standing puppets outside, which I insisted on posing with for numerous photos.
On taking our seats, I was relieved to see that most people were wearing smart casual clothes, as I was. There was a mix of foreign and Vietnamese visitors, and the theatre was probably about half-full. The seats are tiered, so no matter where you end up seating you still have a great view. The orchestra began to play some haunting traditional tunes, and I sat there looking at the bright red temple background, pondering what exactly I thought water puppet shows were all about.
I didn’t have to wait long, however, as a puppet suddenly appeared from almost nowhere, seemingly gliding across the water. This was the MC puppet, who appeared at the start and end of each set. Unfortunately, we were unable to understand the words of any songs or commentary, as it was all conducted in Vietnamese, but the general gist could be understood by simply watching.
The first act involved two vibrant dragon puppets, playing and dancing on the water. This was a truly magical performance, and I couldn’t help but feel glee watching them toss a ball backward and forward to each other. It really did feel like I was watching two real-life creatures frolicking and having fun with each other. When they breathed fire and spurted water I couldn’t take my eyes off them, it was just a pure joy to watch.
Then, it was the turn of a young boy riding a buffalo. Watching his limbs moving as he swam through the water was incredible. Even more incredible though were dance scenes, in which the puppets moved in total harmony and synchronisation with each other. I was in true admiration of the skill of those controlling these amazing puppets. Throughout the show puppets painted in various clothing were made to act out different scenes from traditional Vietnamese life.
I was totally enthralled and captivated by the grace of these painted lumps of wood, and how they really did seem to come alive moving across the water. Despite all the bright and vivid colours, I could not help but notice how brightly their red lips had been painted.
As well as the dragons, one of my favourite acts involved many brightly painted puppets in boats. My only problem though was trying to watch everything at once, as the stage was so active and busy! Other scenes included a giant tortoise disappearing into the depths of the water holding a sword in its mouth, having taken it from the king, farmers conducting their daily business, fish leaping in and out of the water, and stern soldiers bearing colourful flags. The lighting, music and singing throughout the performances added to the magical atmosphere, and I was enjoying myself that much that it seemed to end far too soon.
After a big round of applause for the puppeteers, who emerged to take a bow, the audience started to disperse. Leaving the theatre, we were confronted with a relentless torrential downpour. Taking shelter for a while, and realising that it did not appear to be easing, we decided to brave the rain, both my mother and I thinking far too much about what we could eat for dinner! The irony of having been in a water theatre and then getting drenched upon leaving was not lost on me, as I sat dripping water all over the floor in a lovely restaurant.
The Golden Dragon Water Theatre can easily be walked to from within the central Ho Chi Minh City area. There are daily shows at 5pm and 6:30pm. The shows last for 50 minutes, and runs straight through with no interval.
Which shows, or methods of portrayal, depicting local traditions and folklore have you found particularly enjoyable, and why? Which other places in the world have entertainment forms unique to that country? And, have you visited a different water theatre elsewhere in Vietnam? If so, what did you think?