Vietnamese theater is known for the lively interaction between the performers and the audience. One director told the New York Times, "In the Russian tradition of Stanislavski, the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about me.’ In the German tradition of Brecht the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about them.’ In the Vietnamese tradition the actor says, ‘You and I will tell you a story about us.’" Many southerners have traditionally enjoyed opera and musical dramas with humorous elements. Skits and impromptu performances and recitations of verse are popular at many social gatherings.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Because of centuries of domination by China, "it is only natural that Chinese influence has been prominent in Vietnamese theatrical traditions since the times of the Indian-influenced Champa kingdoms. According to oral tradition, a Vietnamese ruler of the early eleventh century employed a Chinese actor to teach his court actors the art of "Chinese satirical theater". It is not known, however, what was exactly meant by this term.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

There are about half dozen theatrical companies in Hanoi. Since state subsidies have dried up they have tried to make ends meet by selling tickets to their performances. They perform everything from Shakespeare to traditional folk tales to works by modern Vietnamese playwrights.

Audiences were brought to tears by performances at the Youth Theater of Hanoi of the play Laughing and Crying , written and director by the theatrical director Le Hung. Produced in 2002, it was one of the first attempts in the performing arts to tackles the lingering scar tissue left from the Vietnam War.

Also See Music

Hat Boi, Vietnamese Court Opera

Tuong, also called hat boi in the south, is a stage performance that came about during the Ly-Tran dynasties and that became very popular nationwide during the following centuries. During the Nguyen dynasty, 19th century, tuong occupied a good position in the cultural lives of the royals. In tuong, space and time are captured by songs, dancing, and simple music. In the past, tuong did not require any elaborate stage accessories; now, however backdrops and make-up are more elaborate and sophisticated. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism]

Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "The art form consists of highly stylised dancing and music, conventional and imbued with symbolism. Thanks to the stylised, symbolic gestures by the performers and a good deal of imagination on the part of the spectators, the stage setups are in fact very simple. Mountains, forests, rivers, dawns, nightscapes, horse riding and battlefields are all represented on stage using minimal accessories and very little technical equipment. The art form also has many strict rules on speaking, singing and dancing styles. In chronological order and by their content, the troupe’s plays are divided into traditional, royal, social and modern performances. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet Nam News, March 29, 2009 *=*]

A 65-year old woman in Vinh An Commune, Le Thi Dieu, says she has watched classical drama performances since she was a child. "Seeing the artists in colorful costumes singing and dancing, I’ve always felt very happy. Classical dramas became my favorite form of entertainment my whole life. Even now, though I am old, anytime a troupe performs at my commune, I will join the other spectators." Her neighbour, Nguyen Kim Chi, 70, says, "Classical drama comes with the local people like teeth come with lips. People my age love watching classical dramas; they don’t like other art forms." *=*

History of Hat Boi

Hat boi, also known as Tuong (classical drama), was formed in the 12th century, and throughout much of the 17th century it was very much in vogue. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "The Chinese opera style was thus adopted by the Vietnamese at an early stage. Vietnamese court opera is called hat boi (hat: to sing; boi: gesture, pose), which developed into its classical form in the fourteenth century. Outwardly, it resembles Chinese opera to a great degree. As in Chinese opera, the hat boi actors sing their lines and employ dance-like gestures. The histrionic conventions were also adopted from China, but the music, despite various Chinese influences, at least partly represents indigenous tradition. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

"At first, Chinese classics provided material for the plots, but later librettos relating to Vietnamese history were also written, and Chinese stories and tales were adapted to local tastes and conditions. Significant librettists were Dao Duy Tu (1572–1634) and Dao Tan (1848–1908). Hat boi gradually became popular throughout the country, especially in the south. Chinese influence continued over the centuries, and hat boi closely followed the development of many Chinese opera styles in their various phases. Facial make-up, for instance, is based on eighteenth-century Chinese standards.|~|

"The troupes originally performed for the court and the nobility in palaces and private apartments, but at the beginning of the nineteenth century a permanent opera stage was built at the imperial palace in Hué. The court had extravagant tastes in opera, and official records mention that Emperor Tu Duc (1848–83) employed an opera troupe of 150 actresses at his court as well as a renowned Chinese opera star. The emperors at the court of Hué preserved the hat boi tradition until 1945, but with the end of imperial patronage, this tradition soon degenerated, and at present most commercial performances of hat boi are said to be only distant echoes of the classical court opera." |~|

Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "In the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, each province had hundreds of communal houses in the villages. Following local customs, each village organized a le ky yen (ceremony to wish for peace) at their communal house once every three years. During this ceremony, a classical drama performance was a must. It was considered as an art that could both serve rituals and meet the residents’ entertainment demands. At that time, classical drama monopolised theater stages in the Delta’s rural areas. Annually, many troupes from the central province of Binh Dinh travelled southward to the Delta by boat. The troupes went on tours from village to village to earn their living over the course of several months. Many artists stayed in the Delta provinces to set up their own businesses, and they trained many younger generations of performers. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet Nam News, March 29, 2009 *=*]

"More than 50 years ago, the art form ruled the nation’s stages, especially in rural areas. But as society has developed, many new art forms have appeared and now compete with these classical dramas. The art itself is performed in a classical style, so many spectators today can hardly understand the ancient lyrics, which have many Chinese and Nom (Chinese-transcribed Vietnamese) words. *=*

"After the Liberation Day of Southern Viet Nam, many provinces in the Delta established troupes that combined cai luong with classical drama, but these troupes did not survive. A folklorist in Vinh Long Province’s Department of Culture and Information, Nguyen To Tranh, says that the preservation of this ancient art form should be linked with festivals held in communal houses. "Annually, villages in the southern provinces always held classical drama shows at night to worship local gods during local ceremonies. There are so many communal houses, and every locality has to implement its rituals, so I believe that classical drama shows can still be held regularly. As long as these communal houses exist, classical drama will live on." *=*

Multi-Generation Family Hot Boi Troupe

Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "The Dong Thinh Troupe has existed for nearly 100 years. Its owner, showman and artisan Huynh Van Rang, was brought into the art form through three generations of performers. He has followed his grandfather and his parents since he was born, and even as a child played child characters in the performances. Today, at the age of 74, Rang still practices regularly. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet Nam News, March 29, 2009 *=*]

"Classical drama is in my blood," Rang says. "I followed my father on tour ever since I was a little boy. Seeing the spectators clap their hands, that encouraged me, and so I pursued the art form. "After my father died, I inherited his post to manage the troupe. As I have practiced the art form since childhood, I have been able to preserve all of the art’s quintessence," he says. His family now has 17 members pursuing the art form, including his wife, children, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and grandchildren. *=*

"Troupe members Vu Linh Tam and Thai Phuong, along with Rang’s daughter Yen Linh, have 30 to 50 years of experience. Every year, the troupe goes on tour throughout the Delta provinces. But the troupe’s members don’t have salaries. Each performer only receives up to several hundred thousand dong per show, while they have to spend their own money for costumes and other personal property. Therefore, during their time out of the limelight, the performers have to find other jobs to support themselves. *=*

"Vu Linh Tam designs and decorates stages, writes scenes and directs cai luong (reformed theater) and other plays. Actor Thai Phuong sells children’s toys near a local school. "The art form is not only our passion, but also our blood and breath," says Phuong. "Although our lives are still hard because we have to struggle to earn a living, we still believe that we can maintain the traditions inherited from our parents, which can express feelings of joy, anger, love and hate." *=*

"Dong Thinh Troupe is considered the greatest and most long-standing troupe in the Delta that is still maintaining this art form, thanks to preservation efforts and the devotion of Huynh Van Rang, who has wandered all over the Delta, along with his family and troupe members, over the past years, all so that today his descendants would be able to bring the art form abroad to introduce it to international friends as a unique cultural movement of the Vietnamese people. In addition to his daughter Yen Linh, who brought pride to the family because of her show in the US, Rang has another joy, as his grandchildren also love and practice the ancient art form. "This means the troupe has so far maintained the art for five generations, following our ancestors’ wishes to have ‘the art handed down from fathers to sons’," he says happily. *=*

Hot Boi Troupe Performs in the U.S.

Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "In early July 2007 the troupe was invited to travel to the US to attend the Smithsonian Institute’s annual Folk Life Festival, entitled "The Mekong River: Connecting Cultures". For the artists who were descended from the countryside, this was a boundless joy, says actress Yen Linh. "When the provincial Department of Culture and Information told us the news, we were so happy and promised each other that we would try our best to bring pride to the nation," she recalls. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet Nam News, March 29, 2009 *=*]

"The troupe sent actors Linh Tam and Thai Phuong, actress Yen Linh, and two instrumentalists to the US. They performed an extract of Tiet Giao doat ngoc (Tiet Giao robs the precious stone) with five sections, totalling 45 minutes. "Normally, a classical drama lasts two or three hours, with 20-30 performers. But to perform abroad, because of limits in time and the number of performers, we had to select extracts and edit them to be really special. We also had to make extra efforts, like quickly applying our own make-up, and changing our own costumes. Each instrumentalist had to play two or three instruments," says Tam. *=*

"Because of the limited performance time, we chose certain extracts so that foreign spectators could easily understand the content of the full play. I believe we were able to properly portray our national art form to foreign spectators." *=*

Hat Boi Preparation and Performance

Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "The sounds of clapping hands and joyful cheers rise up from the crowd of people sitting and standing around the small red stage set in front of a communal house in Vinh An Commune, Mang Thit District, in the southern province of Vinh Long. Accompanying the noisy, traditional music, replete with cymbals and drums, a male general fights a female counterpart on stage, both donning colorful costumes and holding long spears in their hands. The performance is by the Dong Thinh Hat Boi Troupe, made up of amateurs from Vinh Long Province. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet Nam News, March 29, 2009 *=*]

"Tam say that classical drama is a very difficult art form. "Our forefathers left this art to us and it is a heritage because each move of the performer and the way he performs requires an inborn talent. Performers’ looks, eyes and mouths, as well as the movements of their limbs all express feelings and attitudes." Performers have to apply make-up following a different criteria of each kind of character, such as the kings, generals, loyal mandarins, villain mandarins and monsters. They must make sure that their faces reflect each person’s character. Therefore, while putting on make-up, performers must focus on the smaller details, like eyebrows, the corners of the eyes, mouths and foreheads. Male actors must pay special attention to different kinds of beards, such as a five-tuft or three-tuft beard, a long or short beard or various moustaches and paintings on their faces. Tam says that each main tune consists of dozens of different voices. In addition to the major tunes, there are supplemental ones as well. *=*

"There are many strict rules to follow while performing on stage, Tam says. "When stepping out to the stage, the actors must go through the Gate of Birth on the left, and they go back behind the tormentor via the Gate of Death on the right. "While singing, they must not show their backs to the spectators, and they must stand or move their bodies following the shapes of Han scripts," he says. As the art is so difficult, it requires each artist not only to have an inborn talent, but also to have an inquiring mind and to really love the art. *=*

"Classical drama can be summarised as "Nhat sac, nhi thanh, tam bo, tu tich" (Beauty first, voice second, moves third, stories fourth) which means the play’s success mostly depends on the beauty and voices of the actors, as well as their performances, while the stories only play a small role," he says. Most of ancient plays strongly highlight the virtues of Trung (Loyalty), Hieu (Filial love), Tiet (Moral integrity) and Nghia (Righteousness), so many of them are now not as well suited to modern audiences. This is one of the reasons that classical dramas are not attracting as many spectators as in the past. *=*

Cheo or Vietnamese Popular theater

Cheo is a style of traditional folk theater performed by traveling troupes on platforms at temples before the music of a drum a single-string lyre. The actors usually work their way through the audience and collect money in a hat. Although the plays often are dated in the 11th they broach themes on love and war that touch Vietnamese today. Sometimes directors use the form to draw parallels to what is happening in contemporary Vietnam. Many of the actors are farmers or workers who perform not to make money but to keep the art form alive. Cheo is now undergoing a strong revival. It is particularly relished by foreigners and overseas Vietnamese visiting the country.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Hat cheo or cheo opera is a form of popular musical theater accompanied originally by a small orchestra consisting of a fiddle, a flute, and a drum. In recent decades the size of the orchestra has grown greatly. The music is indigenous North Vietnamese and it is constructed from well-known stock melodies such as heart-breaking declamations and other themes suitable for the turns of the plot. The stories are often based on local, orally transmitted legends. The language used is vernacular Vietnamese. Hat cheo does not employ elaborate scenery and flashy costuming. Thus it has been a traditionally outwardly rather modest form of theater. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Cheo originated in the northern countryside. The word cheo means "lyrics of folk ballads, proverbs". Traditionally, cheo was composed orally by anonymous authors. Today's playwrights compose cheo along traditional lines. The characters in the plays sing time-tested popular melodies with words suited to modern circumstances. Human rights and the battle of good against evil are common themes. The joyfulness and optimism of cheo is expressed through humour and wit. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

In cheo performances, there is always an exchange between the audience and the performers. The performers, dao (actress), kep (actor), lao (old man), mu (female character) and he (buffoon). The buffoon is a familiar character in cheo, in which there is often a blend of the tragic and the comic. He speaks the language of the people and shoots shafts of satire at evil-doers, such as ignorant witchdoctors, greedy landlords, or arrogant mandarins. He may wear a short coat, the garment of the commoner or a long robe, an article of clothing favored by members of the upper classes in the old society. A couple of buffoons may appear on stage, including the master in a flowing gown and his servant in a short coat and carrying a stick, each speaking the language and behaving the ways of his class. The buffoon may make his entry right at the beginning of a play, carrying a torch or a megaphone and provoking wild laughter from the audience. ~

Vietnamese Water Puppetry

Water puppetry is unique to Vietnam. Featuring stories from everyday life and famous legends, it features fire-breathing dragons, farmers, frogs, old men, gods, goddesses, and fish. Performances are usually accompanied by music and have little dialogues. The stories, which are well-known to Vietnamese, are conveyed through actions. According to one story, water puppetry was developed in the 11th century in the Red River Delta by puppeteers who decided to carry on even though there was a flood. More of a folk art than a court art, it has a long history of being performed in ponds and rice paddies during lulls in the agriculture cycle. Water puppetry nearly died during the war years but has been revived in recent years and is enjoyed by Vietnamese and tourists. The Vietnamese government has asked that it be declared part of the world’s cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Vietnam also has its own tradition of puppet theater, mua roi nuroc (puppets that dance on water). It is an old and rare North Vietnamese form of puppet theater, and it has actively been revived since the 1980s. In a number of small villages near Hanoi water puppet theater is still performed at certain festivities, as it has been in times past. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The pond and lakes of the northern plains, where crowds gathered during festival and galas, become the lively stages for the water puppet shows. At a water puppet show, the audience watches boat races, buffalo fights, fox hunts and other rustic scenes amidst the beating of drums and gongs. The characters plough, plant rice seedlings, fish in a pond with a rod and line, scoop water with a bamboo basket hung from a tripod, etc. The show is interspersed with such items as a Dance by the Four Mythical Animals: Dragon, Unicorn, Tortoise, and Phoenix and Dance by the Eight Fairies, in which supernatural beings enjoy festivities alongside people of this world. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Vietnamese Water Puppets and Water Puppeteers

Vietnamese water puppets are made of wood and coated with lacquer and waterproof paint. Each puppet is handmade, has its own posture and expresses a certain character. The most outstanding puppet, known as the chu teu, has a round face and a humorous and optimistic smile. Some of the puppets are quite large—60 centimeters tall and weighing 13.5 kilograms—and are manipulated by three puppeteers.

The puppets are manipulated with rods hidden under the water. Complicated mechanisms make it possible to move the puppets’ limbs and even to make a puppet smoke a cigarette. The configuration of the poles and wires under the water is a secret, and spectators are not allowed to watch from behind the screen. There are many contributing factors to the art of water puppetry, including such handicrafts as wood sculpture and lacquer work. The factors all work together to bring out charming glimpses of the Vietnamese psyche, as well as typical landscapes of Vietnam.

The puppeteers, originally ordinary villagers, manipulate 30- to 40-centimeter-high puppets while standing in water. In the old days the performances were usually arranged at the village ponds, typical features of Vietnamese villages. Above the water was constructed a temporary structure, from which a bamboo curtain hung to shield the puppeteers from the audience sitting on the banks of the pond. (Only one permanent stone structure is known to exist.) [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

There are currently about a dozen water puppet troops, performing mostly in villages in the Red River Delta. They typically know a repertoire of 40 or 50 vignettes. The groups that are the most successful are the one who perform before tourist in Hanoi and Saigon. Most of the puppeteers are farmers who work hard to perfect their technique but generally perform for free. One of them told AP, "Puppet shows are not very expensive to produce, so we’ve been able to revive them. But it depends on the contribution of the puppeteer, who usually don’t receive any salaries...There’s not much support from the government because it faces many financial difficulties.

The Viet Nam news reported: Singers of Cheo — traditional North Vietnamese operetta — tell the story. Ostentacious decorations color each show, and traditional musical instruments such as drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, two-string Chinese violins and flutes set the tone.Water puppetry combines a myriad of art forms like, sculpture, architecture, painting, music and literature. "

History of Vietnamese Water Puppetry

Vietnamese water puppetry has a long history. An inscription on a stone stele in Doi Pagoda, Duy Tien District, Nam Ha Province, relates a water puppet show staged in the year 1121 to mark a birthday of King Ly Nhan Tong in 4036 words. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Khanh Van wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Vietnamese water puppetry originated from the Song Hong (Red River) Delta of Viet Nam in the tenth century. It began to grow in popularity from the 15th century. At that time, farmers performed the art and used it as a means to relax after the harvesting was done. The custom is still alive and well in many parts of rural Viet Nam . Water puppetry was created by lively farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields. They noticed that water was an excellent medium for puppetry, as it concealed the puppeteers’ rod and string mechanisms, and provided exciting effects like waves and splashes. [Source: Khanh Van, Viet Nam News, January 11, 2009 //\\]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "It was formerly believed that water puppet theater came to Vietnam from China, where early literary references to a similar art form exist. At present, experts believe that the Chinese adopted water puppetry from the Vietnamese, where the tradition is believed to have evolved in the 11th century. In the 1970s, water puppetry performances were organized in only a few villages, but partly because of the interest of the foreign community in Hanoi, a project was launched by Western countries and cultural institutes to document and propagate this unique tradition. Now commercial performances are staged daily in several theaters in Hanoi and Saigon. |~|[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

According to Reuters: "The art form is unique to just six provinces clustered in the delta around Hanoi, and no sign of the art has ever emerged in neighboring China, Laos and Cambodia or even central and southern Vietnam, despite similar agrarian environments. This puzzles historian and puppet expert Nguyen Tran Dung. "Agriculture in the north and south is based on the same water rice paddies and other countries around also have rice paddies, but they don't have water puppets. That's a big question," Dung said. Historians say that before Vietnam's succession of liberation wars from the 1940s to the late 1970s, there were as many as 28 troupes, compared with 13 still active in 2005. [Source: Reuters, September 21, 2005 **]

"Shows were suspended during wartime, when puppeteers like Dau became soldiers, and bombing made it too dangerous to perform. Since communist-run Vietnam adopted an open-door policy of economic renewal in 1987, professionalism has been brought to this ancient folk art. Museum director Huy acknowledged it had also spurred the provincial troupes to improve. Thousands of foreign tourists attend the daily professional shows in Hanoi, and these troupes have toured abroad. In centuries past, people were initiated into a troupe after the new member and other members had cut themselves, drunk the blood and sworn not to reveal trade secrets or they and three future generations would die. Chang Son troupe chief Dau says the secrets are no longer a matter of life and death, but fears that if his village pond is not cleaned up, his beloved puppets may never perform again."

Rural water puppetry is being threatened somewhat by television and pop music and the necessity to make money but puppeteers don’t think it will die out. One puppeteer told AP, "it originated from the farmers, and when farmers see it, they feel part of the show. So I think it will live forever, like a mirror which reflect the people ‘s daily life."

Water Puppet Performance

Water puppet performances for tourists and urbanites are held in meter-deep-water special theaters with a pool before the audience or at lakes, pond or swimming pools. The puppets are attached to rods, which are manipulated by puppeteers, who stand waist-deep in the water hidden behind a bamboo screen. The show starts an introduction by the chu teu, the buffoon character, dressed in an odd costume, offering joyful laughter. A small orchestra is accompanied the narrators who recite the story and the necessary lines. The repertoire, varying from village to village, consists of standard scenes, partly dealing with Vietnamese history, classics and, more often, of domestic affairs.

In water puppet shows there is a very effective combination of visual effects provided by fire, water, and the movements of the marionettes. The whole control system of the show is under the surface of the water, concealed from the audience. When fairy figures appear to sing and dance, it is calm and serene; then the water is agitated by stormy waves in scenes of battle, with the participation of fire-spitting dragons. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "A performance usually begins with a dance of the dragons and a show of fireworks, after which Teu, the stock clown, makes his entrance, being followed by special animal scenes in which horses, frogs, turtles, and mythological creatures are introduced. Ploughing with water buffaloes, fishing scenes, and other everyday activities are also enacted. The most dramatic scenes are those of Vietnamese history, such as famous sea battles. The commercial performances are performed in theater houses in a rubber pond that is some 5 by 5 meters. The performances are accompanied by a traditional North Vietnamese orchestra with singers. The repertory still consists of the short standard scenes. Water puppet troupes regularly tour abroad, making this unique art form known around the world.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

David Thurber of AP wrote: "A grinning tiger splashes through the water, grabs a duck from a helpless farmer and races up a tree six meters away, its prey dangling from its mouth...The audience roars at the antics controlled by puppeteers standing thigh-deep in water behind a bamboo screen. Long underwater poles and ropes transmit the complex motions to the colorful hand-carved puppets—including dancing maidens, smoke-belching dragons and fish that pull lazy fishermen into the deep."

"The performance—introduced by a country bumpkin named Teu—intersperse vignettes of life in a farming village with legends about Vietnam’s creation, magical turtles and brave kings. In many, humans are outfoxed by nature...The water serves as not only the stage but also a character in the stories, portraying the tranquil ripples of a duck pond as well as the violent waves of an ocean battle."

Rural Water Puppet Show

In 2005, Reuters reported from Chang Son, "At show time, wooden puppets 25 centimeters to 47 centimeters (10-18 inches) tall emerge from behind a bamboo blind, often in a blaze of colorful flags. The puppets are painted red and black, orange, brown and green. Some scripts carry the audience into a fantasy world of dragons spitting flames, unicorns, dancing phoenixes and fairies. Exploding firecrackers can add to the excitement, filling the air over the watery stage with smoke. The unseen puppeteers stand barefoot, wearing only their their underwear, in the pond or paddy and send puppet people, elephants, buffalo, snakes and other animals gliding along the water using a system of rods, strings, levers and hinges. [Source: Reuters, September 21, 2005]

These techniques are among the craft's most closely guarded secrets, passed down through a family's male line. For the past decade, women too have performed the task in professional arenas. It takes years of practice to make the puppet's maneuvering mechanism or to develop skills to move its body parts. The dolls are accompanied by musicians playing drums, flutes and other wind instruments while a narrator tells tales, some up to 90 minutes long, with titles such as "Water buffalo creeps into a pipe", "A hero fights a tiger", or "Fishing for Frogs".

One favorite in the furniture-making village of Chang Son in Ha Tay province about 45 kilometers (28 miles) southwest of Hanoi is "Betel Nut Offering." Traditionally, offering betel was the way to start a conversation in Vietnam. Village market vendor Phi Thi Hang said she first saw puppets when she was 15. Fifty years later, she still attends shows. Hang admiringly described a puppeteer skillfully maneuvering a puppet to hold up a tray of betel nuts while it floated around the pond. The puppet offered betel to audience members who removed the nuts and left money on the tray.

Rural Water Puppetry Struggles to Survive

In 2005, Reuters reported from Chang Son, "The water puppet performers rub crushed ginger onto their skin and drink fish sauce to keep warm when they stand waist deep in cold rice paddies and ponds. Practitioners of the 900-year-old art in Vietnam's northern Red River Delta endure discomforts for love of their craft. But the few surviving traditionalist water puppetry troupes struggle to keep afloat. They lack money and personnel while two professional indoor theaters thrive in the capital, Hanoi. [Source: Reuters, September 21, 2005 **]

"If they didn't love it, they wouldn't put their bodies in the water. They would not stand all day to perform," Professor Nguyen Van Huy, director of Vietnam's Museum of Ethnology, said of the farmers and carpenters who make up the troupes. "If they cannot nurture their love for the art form, it will die," Huy said. Troupe members build wooden and bamboo pavilions in a pond, the roofs curved at the corners in the style of Buddhist temples. **

"In the past three years, a pond in the heart of Chang Son has become unusable, polluted with sewage and plastic shopping bags. The pollution distresses troupe chief Nguyen Van Dau, whose skills as scriptwriter, carpenter and puppeteer were passed down over four generations. His son is now in the 22-member troupe. "This is a real pressing issue in our minds," Dau, 65, a retired army captain, said at the pond's edge. "It is also about civilization. It's a big regret." He feels a deep sense of duty towards his ancestors' heritage. Chang Son village is one of the places where water puppetry arose in the 11th century, according to ethnology museum documents. The troupe is the only one that has books of folklore and songs for water puppetry written in Han, which centuries ago was the official language of Vietnam using the Chinese-based script." **

Revival of Vietnamese Water Puppetry

Associated Press reported: "Vietnam's unique water puppets have been portraying the foibles of rural life for nearly 1,000 years. They are among many traditional Vietnamese performing arts that nearly faded away during decades of war and communist revolution, but have now found new audiences. About a dozen water puppet troupes are currently performing, mostly in villages in northern Vietnam's Red River Delta. Most of the puppeteers are farmers who devote long hours to practice but perform for free. [Source: Associated Press, July 3, 2002 *-*]

"I inherited this art from my ancestors, and I want to pass it on as an inheritance to future generations,'' said Nguyen Xuan Thu, a member of a troupe in Nguyen Xa village in northern Thai Binh province. "During the war we didn't have the conditions to do many shows,'' said Nguyen Huy Hong, 76, president of UNIMA, a Vietnamese traditional puppetry club. "Many of the performers had to go to battlefields. The puppets were put in storage and many became ruined, and there wasn't time for performances.'' After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Communist authorities believed that traditional culture and festivals were backward and frivolous in a time of extreme poverty and political upheaval. That policy began shifting in the mid 1980s as Vietnam introduced economic reforms that ended its failed experiment in collectivized agriculture and a centralized command economy. *-*

"The government now officially encourages many traditional arts in an effort to forge a national cultural identity, and this year plans to ask UNESCO to designate water puppetry as part of the world's cultural heritage. But government support for the arts remains tightly limited. Hong, who has been involved with water puppetry for 43 years, says it will survive as long as it accurately depicts rural society. *-*

Water Puppetry Museum and Efforts to Keep the Art Form Alive

In 2009, Khanh Van wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Water puppet artists are passionate people by nature, and have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to keeping the traditional craft alive. Researcher Nguyen Huy Hong is one. The 80-year-old creative artist spent 50 years observing and studying the quirky art from its beginning, when only farmers in the countryside knew about it. Over time, with the help of enthuasiastic artists, water puppetry has come to be universally loved by people of all ages and cultures. [Source: Khanh Van, Viet Nam News, January 11, 2009 //\\]

"The first challenge was to reel in the younger demographic. This was no easy feat, considering the youth of today are increasingly drawn in by modern computer games. To jump this hurdle, Hong opened a water puppetry research center/museum in Phu Xuyen District, Hanoi. His museum covers an area of 500sq.m in Dong Vang village, Hoang Long commune. It showcases water puppetry’s colorful paraphernalia, drawing attention to its history and development. "Water puppetry illustrates the ordinary life of Vietnamese in rural areas. Snapshots of farmers ploughing and growing rice or catching fish are brought to the stage. For this reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to bring water puppetry back to the countryside – its cradle " Hong said. //\\

"Water puppetry reveals day-to-day living in rural areas of Viet Nam and Vietnamese folk tales that are usually told by older generations to younger generations. Water puppets bring wry humour to ordinary country scenes and traditional festivals, such as, buffalo fights and children’s games, like marbles and coin-tossing. Legends and folklore are passed down to younger audiences through the art. //\\

"Hong has collected water puppet treasures worth VND50 billion ($2.9 million). Amongst his trove are 5,000 photos of rare, ancient puppets and puppets unique to certain areas. He has also opened a library with an impressive collection of books where he gives classes to local artists, teaching them how to attract the young. In Hong’s museum, "visitors will have a chance to deepen their understanding of Viet Nam’s traditional art," said student NguyenThuy Linh. //\\

"I watched a puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet theater when I was a young girl. At that time, it was a huge mystery to me how puppets could dance on water. But now, through reading books and looking at photos, and hearing Hong talking about the history of water puppetry of Viet Nam, I understand more, and find water puppets more interesting," Linh said. "Water puppetry educates people on Vietnamese culture in an entertaining way," she said. //\\

"Professor Nguyen Van Huy, former Director of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, believes the key to preserving the art lies in the development of local puppetry groups. "Many artists nowadays seem to adopt modern styles, which neglect important professional skills", he said. He added that water puppetry’s appeal comes from its simplicity. Rural artists, he said, perceive the beauty of the rice fields and can bring this passion to the stage. //\\

Dance in Vietnam

A traditional Vietnamese dance troupe consists of maybe 20 girls and 6 boys. The dancers are often so heavily made-up it is difficult to tell the sexes apart. They dance in their socks and their costumes look like something an oriental court jester would wear. Accompanying them is a band of five musicians that play gongs and drums for rhythm and an oboe-like instrument for melody.

Dances and dance-related arts include flag waving, Vietnamese style Kung-fu, group dances called "The Drought and the Rain" and Chinese-style dragon dances. The lambada dance from the late 1980s was banned.

Royal dance in Viet Nam had a development process during many dynasties, from Dinh Dynasty in the 10th century to the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 20th century. It originated to serve royalty, and it was performed at different types of ceremonies. The Vietnamese royal dance has been fixed the form clearly in the Viet and Cham people community. For Cham people, royal dances are known including apsara (Tra Kieu) and the sight of royal dance (Champa). [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

For Viet people, the great majority of royal dances functioned to wish the sovereign and his family happiness, prosperity and longevity - such was the origin of the various forms of mua quat (fan dance) and the numerous complex dance pieces devised for royal anniversaries, such as the tam tinh chuc tho, the bat tien hien tho and the luc triet hoa ma dang. Other royal dances, such as the tam quoc tay du (Travels through the Three Western Kingdoms) or the nu tuong xuat quan (Departure of the Warrior) celebrated legendary or historical events. There also developed a number of important ritual dances dedicated to Buddha, including the dances luc cung hoa dang and song quang. The most solemn and intriguing royal dance was the bat dat, involving groups of 64 civil and military dancers and presented latterly as an integral component of the annual sacrificial rites of the Nguyen kings at Nam Giao Esplanade in Hue where, according to tradition, the monarch received endorsement for his heavenly mandate. ~

Vietnamese modern dance started developing around 1945. It consists of a combination of materials; some from the folk dance period and others from the new era. Some of the dance styles which were derived from the folk dance period include the umbrella dance, khen dancing, the Cham dance, and the peacock dance. In recent years, the Vietnamese modern dance has absorbed international and European classical influences, especially in dances to accompany popular music.

Cham Dance

Cham dances include the fan dance, with young women creating an image of a blooming flower; the drum dance, with white-pajama-clad drummers and tambourine players beating their chests and doing somersaults; and the pottery dance, performed by women with flowers in their hair at a beach. In their most erotic and sensual dances, women in skimpy halter tops golden necklaces and metal headdresses, gyrate and sway from a kneeling position to a standing position and snake in between by men in loin clothes.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Probably the most widely illustrated of all the Cham sculptures is the 10th century "Tra Kieu dancer". It is a rather well preserved portrayal of a dancer sculptured on a large pedestal. It has been pointed out that this image clearly reflects Indian and Javanese influences. The pose and the gestures of the Tra Kieu dancer reflect Indian influence. In the dancer’s pose one can, however, recognise one particular element, which is seldom present in Indian or even Javanese dance images. It is the over-bent elbow joint of the left arm, which could easily be seen as the artist’s inability to portray human anatomy. However, it can also be interpreted as the earliest so far known surviving portrayal of the technical and aesthetical characteristic, which was and still is a distinctive feature in classical Javanese and, especially, Thai-Khmer dance techniques. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

If the above interpretation is correct, the Tra Kieu dancer reflects, to a certain degree, the localisation process of the Indian-influenced dance tradition in Champa culture. This also applies to another famous pedestal dated to an even earlier period, the 7th century. This pedestal, which once supported a large Shiva linga, shows groups of dancers on the risers of its stairway. The pedestal is otherwise decorated with musicians as well as ascetics in various activities. |~|

The central figure in the upper panel has turned his muscular back to the viewer while waving a long scarf in his hands as if offering it to the deity. The side figures are in frozen poses and hold offerings in their hands. The poses and gestures of the dancers in the lower panel are clearly Indian-influenced, but what is striking is the dominant role the dance scarves have in these panels. The use of dance scarves is rare in the Indian Natyashastra-related traditions, whereas scarves are depicted in Central Javanese reliefs and they have become an integral element of Javanese dances of later times. |~|

The Cham dance reliefs reflect the localisation process of Indian dance in Southeast Asia. The over-bent elbow of the Tra Kieu dancer and the dominant role of the scarf in some of the Cham dance images are clearly indigenous or are at least Southeast Asian features. However, the Indian influence continued to thrive during the whole of Champa’s golden period as can be seen, for example, in a lintel relief from the 11th century showing female dancers and musicians. The dancers hold their hands above their heads in a salutation mudra while their open legs are in a typical Indian-influenced position. The asymmetry of their pose may be explained by the fact that the reliefs show not the first movement of the salutation, but one of the following movements when the dancers bend their bodies from side to side. These kinds of invocation dances or sequences of dance are still part of the repertory of Indian dances as well as of some Thai ritual dances. One could conclude that the Indian, especially Southwest Indian, influence is prominent in the Cham dance images, although they are only seldom based on direct Indian models, maybe because the Indian influence could have been, at least partly, received via Indonesian islands. |~|

Vietnamese Folk Dances and Ceremonial Dances

Approximately 2,500 years ago, pictures of dancers were engraved on the Dong Son drums. These engravings reveal two dance styles, one with accessories and one without accessories. The main dance accessory was a hat ornamented with a bird feather; it appears that the ancient Vietnamese treasured hats. Throughout history, not only did the Viet (Kinh) have their own dance styles, but also did many other ethnic groups. Several examples of these dance styles include trong bong, quat, su tu, and bai bong. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Religious dance may sound similar to the also-mentioned religious belief category of dance, but is more structured to the three main organized religions of Buddhism, Catholicism and Hinduism.They are not numerous, but still occupy enough cultural space to form this peculiar category Religious belief dance is closely connected to ceremonies, beliefs and customs of Vietnamese nationalities. It has been given the strange title of religious belief dance, due to the reflected spiritual features displayed. The dances often worship spirits and genies, facilitate prayer or pay homage to the deceased.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Along with hat boi, the court also developed ceremonial dances imitating the practice of the Chinese imperial court. In other parts of Southeast Asia the poses and hand gestures of almost all the main forms of court dance reflect a more or less direct Indian influence, whereas Vietnamese court dances, in their slow ceremoniality, echo ancient Chinese prototypes. Dances were often accompanied by large instrumental ensembles. The main dance types included the so-called dances of fabulous animals, which included mythical beings such as the unicorn and the phoenix. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The largest dance ceremonies included the civilian dance van vu and the military dance va vu, which were still performed in this century at the Sacrifice to Heaven and Earth, an important state ritual which was adopted from China. These ceremonial dances were performed by two corps de ballet, each consisting of 64 dancers arranged in eight rows. In the early years of the twentieth century the original repertoire of court dance was reduced, and the tradition of court dance appears to have died out when royal patronage ended. |~|

Dances of Vietnam’s Ethnic Groups, See Minorities

Xuan Pha Dance

Performers of Xuan Pha Dance wear painted masks and don strange costumes while they sing and dance, and sometimes howl, causing viewers to feel as if they are in some kind of wonderland. Huy Thong wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Xuan Pha dance is held on the 10 th and 12 th days of the second month of the lunar calendar in Xuan Pha village, Tho Xuan district, in the central province of Thanh Hoa. Xuan Pha is a traditional dance with many mysterious elements, which has been handed down through many generations. One part of the dance consists of rituals worshipping the village god, Dai Hai Long Vuong, a meritorious official of the Dinh and Tien Le dynasties in the 10 th century. [Source: Huy Thong, Viet Nam News, September 28, 2009 /-/]

"In the past, the Xuan Pha dance called for the participation of residents from five villages, each in charge of one of the dances. Artisan Bui Van Hung says that after they apply the make-up, viewers cannot recognised who is who. "Even my family members cannot recognise me among the other dancers," says Hung. "In my village, no one dare to watch the dance alone, because they were afraid of nightmares. /-/

"There are five dances: Chiem Thanh, Hoa Lang and Tu Huan (where the dancers wear mask), along with the Ai Lao and Ngo Quoc dances. All of the masks are very strange. Local children say "they look like ghost faces". The masks are made of wood or cowhide. And the dancers wear hats made of bamboo or cowhide as well. As for the Ai Lao dance, the dancers perform as elephants, tigers, lords, servers and soldiers. The Ngo Quoc dance has two fairies, a lord and ten soldiers, and it is performed with fans and oars. /-/

"These dances mix royal and folk elements, which are symbolic and mysterious, and manifest the farmers’ aesthetic view points. According to music researcher Professor Pham Minh Khang, the Xuan Pha dancers were invited to Hue to serve the king and mandarins several times. "Each performance had about one hundred dancers. Even in 1935, the French regime intended to organize a trip for the dancers to perform in Paris ." /-/

"In the past, the dances were performed in front of the temple dedicated to the village god, but the temple has since been destroyed. Since the art form was restored in 1990, due to a lack of sacred space, they can only perform some parts of the performance. They can only perform the dances on the stage of the communal cultural center, or in the yard of the Tau Pagoda, 150m north of the former temple." /-/

Lang Toi—Village-Inspired Dance- Circus in Vietnam

Vuong Bach Lien wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Three in one: The performance combines dance, circus skills and installation art. A cock crows, the night melts away, a new day has come. Villagers wake up, clean their houses, and maintain their yards. Some go to the pond to catch fish, others work in the fields while children play nhay day (skipping rope) and choi chuyen and da cau (kicking a ball). This peaceful image of life in a typical Vietnamese village is the first scene for audiences at the new circus Lang Toi (My Village) being staged by the Viet Nam Circus Federation (VCF). Most of the props used in the production, everything from the broom, conical hats, fish baskets, fishing rods, the balls and the musical instruments, are made of bamboo as a representation of Vietnamese culture. [Source: Vuong Bach Lien, Viet Nam News, June 12, 2009 =+=]

"Lang Toi was first performed in 2005 during the first-ever Viet Nam Circus Week in Hanoi. The combination of dance and installation art earned the spectacle heaps of applause for its high artistic value. The original spectacle was just that – spectacular. Lang Toi was created by using motifs from traditional Vietnamese culture and showing scenes from daily life in northern villages. =+=

"Based on the original, the new programme will use bamboo as a constant throughout. All props will be made of bamboo and scenes are set to include the wood as a centerpiece. The creators aimed to maintain national identity, working to develop a spectacle known as a "new circus", where a story or scenario is linked throughout the different acts. "Exploring bamboo thoroughly to create new circus items and techniques, I think, will not only bring success to Lang Toi but will also create the premise for new circus programmes for the Federation in the future," he said. =+=

"Show creators aim to highlight varying creative talents from each of the performers. The result is a harmonious programme combining the rhythmic movements of circus, dance, traditional games and farming activities. Young artists translate their heritage for viewers in a decor which symbolises Viet Nam: the bamboo, as the show’s central scenic element, and also soil-the colored carpet, which evokes the land and the Hong (Red) River basin. =+=

"The show invites the public to discover the rural life of Viet Nam, full of joy and poetry, where folk games, human interaction and traditional music are mixed with technical and physical performance, including acrobatics, balance and juggling . Daily life activities of villagers are portrayed with liveliness, from the cry of street vendors to the sound of oars moving through the water as villagers row a boat on the river. During a break from working the rice fields, the farmers smoke a bamboo pipe under the light of the tropical sun. In the evening, in the moonlight, lovers walk together on suspended bamboo paths. Old men play chess while others play flutes and women sing lullabies to their babies. =+=

"Lang Toi’s score takes inspiration from Vietnamese traditional music. An orchestra of four musicians explore the sonority of ancestral instruments (drum, flute, zither). Ca tru (ceremonial singing) is also brought into the show. The result is a seamless melding of music created from ancient folk instruments in tunes arranged for a solid circus performance. "Lang Toi will interest people, because it is not simply a very Vietnamese circus performance; it is also very contemporary", said Larguier. "I hope the programme will help encourage other artists to think of solutions to renew the domestic circus. I hope it’s an occasion to improve the skills of Vietnamese circus artists and make a positive change among the international community in their perception of Vietnamese circus," he said. =+=

Lang Toi Performs Abroad

Vuong Bach Lien wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Three in one: The performance combines dance, circus skills and installation art. A cock crows, the night melts away, a new day has come. Villagers wake up, clean their houses, and maintain their yards. Some go to the pond to catch fish, others work in the fields while children play nhay day (skipping rope) and choi chuyen and da cau (kicking a ball). This peaceful image of life in a typical Vietnamese village is the first scene for audiences at the new circus Lang Toi (My Village) being staged by the Viet Nam Circus Federation (VCF). Most of the props used in the production, everything from the broom, conical hats, fish baskets, fishing rods, the balls and the musical instruments, are made of bamboo as a representation of Vietnamese culture. [Source: Vuong Bach Lien, Viet Nam News, June 12, 2009 =+=]

"With this originality, the new circus programme is expected to prove the talents of Vietnamese circus artists and present audiences with a glimpse of Viet Nam’s culture during a three-year tour abroad, starting in Paris Lang Toi will be staged by The Viet Nam Circus Federation (VCF) in France, Morocco and other European locations thanks to an invitation from France.This occasion is a milestone for the VCF, as it marks the first request from a foreign country for a performance. =+=

"The project was proposed by Jean-Luc Larguier, French president of the Scene de La Terre Association, who has a special interest in Vietnamese culture due to his former positions as cultural attache at French Embassies in South East Asia. An investment contract was signed between the two organizations that resulted in creation of a new artistic performance." "Long Tai’s show as modified for the tour. "Unfortunately with 80 actors and 20 logisticians it was impossible for us to make a tour abroad with the existing programme," said artist Vu Ngoan Hop, director of VCF. The new version of Lang Toi was then created to make it suitable for a tour abroad. The new smaller programme includes the participation of 14 actors, four musicians and two technicians. =+=

"This new version required artists like me to hone better performance skills and smoother acts," said Cao Xuan Hien. "This new version is an improved, quality piece. We maintained our idea of presenting Vietnamese culture, but this time we use bamboo as the primary material," he said. According to Hop, the number of the federation’s small groups granted the opportunity to perform abroad has doubled or tripled in the last five years. "Our country has been ranked high in its ability to maintain its unique cultural identity when compared to other world circus performances," he said. The hope is that these combined experiences will move the Vietnamese circus forward on the world stage; that a transformation will be made allowing performers to earn their place abroad and "strengthen the existence of the circus in the Vietnamese cultural experience". "For a long time, circus has been known solely as entertainment for children. With this programme, we hope to attract adults. This spectacle will broaden the type of audience we can expect in the future," says Hop. =+=

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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