Enjoy a tradition
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the place to go to experience a traditional Vietnamese water puppet performance.
The theatre itself is not traditional—shows used to be performed in rice paddies—and a few bells and whistles have been added these days, but otherwise the hour-long show is the real deal, with live traditional music thrown in as well.
Water puppetry in Vietnam is documented as far back as the establishment of Thang Long (Hanoi) as the capital of the country 1,000 years ago, although it may have existed even before this. After 1010, legend has it that the country went through a stable period, with no wars, and handicrafts were able to flourish. At the same time, festivals and ceremonies became popular, providing an opportunity for artists to perform puppet shows both on land and water.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, on the northeastern bank of Hoan Kiem Lake, is certainly not 1,000 years old, nor reminiscent of the traditional environment in which water puppet shows would have taken place, but if you want to see this art form it’s easy accessible, reasonably priced and an authentic performance.
The theatre is more comfortable than we remember from the first visit we made a decade ago; we’re sure than in those days the seats were wooden benches, prone to sending your bum to sleep. Now the hall boasts rows of standard theatre-style, green-cushioned chairs, with a "pond" at the front instead of a stage.
The show starts with a short musical composition on traditional instruments, played by the small orchestra to the side of the pond; it’s introduced in Vietnamese and English and then the puppet performances begin with a prelude by clown Teu, a funny looking puppet with sprouting hair. Then things really come to life, with a band of drummers taking to the watery stage.
The Vietnamese-language performance comprises 14 different acts, though the programme is subject to change. Each act is distinctive, using different puppets representing people and animals, and range from humorous stories to visual and musical displays. One of them focuses on the legend behind Hanoi's Hoan Kiem, or Returned Sword Lake.
We enjoyed the show a lot more than we expected to, smiling at the cuteness and being even mildly wowed in places, and an hour is plenty long enough to get a flavour of the art form. It’s reasonably fast paced, with each play lasting only a few minutes, with fireworks and dry ice-smoke adding to the theatrical atmosphere.
All performances are accompanied by the orchestra and while the vocalists either sing or provide a voiceover in Vietnamese only, you’ll get the gist (though not all of the humour).
Tickets can be bought from the box office in advance or on the day, but they do sell out, particularly in high season, so you may need to be flexible with your timings.
If you’re a fan, other options for indulging your love of water puppets near Hanoi include the shows put on at the Museum of Ethnology or a tour to a village outside of Hanoi to meet a puppet master. Contact a travel agent such as Exotissimo to arrange this.
Puppets make for an unusual souvenir, and you can snap one or a troupe up from the stall in the foyer or the shops in the surrounds. A cafe is attached to the theatre, so you can enjoy a meal before or after the show as well.
Shows are held daily 15:30 to 21:15 with an extra show Sunday morning.
Address: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang St (near Hoan Kiem Lake), Hanoi
T: (04) 3824 9494, (04) 3825 5450; F: (04) 3824 5117;
Coordinates (for GPS): 105º51'12.24" E, 21º1'53.76" N
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Admission: 100,000 dong adults, 60,000 dong children. Seats are pre-allocated.
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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