Water puppetry is a mainstay of the performing arts in Viet Nam. In villages, it is often performed on the pond that is located close to the communal house and attracts thousands of spectators from near and far.
Thanh Hai water puppeteers standing in water behind a bamboo curtain manipulate the puppets.
Water puppetry performances mainly reflect the daily activities and life of residents living in the northern river delta. Nguyen Van Huan, who was head of Thanh Hai Water Puppetry Troupe, said: "Thanh Hai water puppetry has developed over hundreds of years thanks to the local villagers who wholeheartedly support this art of their native homeland and to the devoted performers who constantly renew the vitality of this traditional art."
Pham Khac Xoa has manipulated the puppets since he was a little boy. Now at 36, he is entrusted by the elderly villagers to be head of the troupe. Xoa said: "Experience handed down to us from the elderly villagers-performers is an invaluable treasure. We want to keep the troupe alive, so often exchange ideas with other troupes around the country. By doing so, we preserve and develop this traditional art.”
“Legend of the Sword Lake” item
Water puppetry certainly isn’t an easy art to perform. The show is held in a pond or lake, and the puppeteers have to stand behind a bamboo curtain and in water, sometimes waist deep. The puppet is attached to the end of a long bamboo pole that has a string or cable running up the centre of it that is pulled or pushed to control the puppets' hand and leg movements.
Thanh Hai water puppeteers have regular meetings to rehearse the old repertoire, compose new skits or make new puppets. Starting with only five acts, Thanh Hai troupe has now a rich repertoire with dozens of acts, some of which are very unique and had won prizes at the national puppetry festivals, such as the frog-catching man, tiny firecrackers, going-to-the-field festival, etc. It also has hundreds of puppets for diverse and interesting performances.
Thanh Hai troupe now has 36 members, of whom 18 members often go to perform in many localities, including Hanoi, Hai Phong and Quang Ninh Province. In recent years, the troupe participated in many festivals nationwide, including Thua Thien-Hue Provincial Puppetry Festival and the National Puppetry Festival. In 2005, at the First National Amateur Water Puppetry Festival, the Thanh Hai Water Puppetry Troupe was awarded the First Prize. The success has been attributed to the great effort made by the local water puppetry artisans and performers.
“Procession of Firecrackers”
Like other villages in the Vietnamese northern delta having symbolic images, such as the communal house's steep roof, the landing place and the old banyan tree, Thanh Hai Village is further known for its long-standing water puppetry performances. During the village festival or other celebrations, there is always water puppetry shows with animated puppets, cheerful music and skilful performers, who are hard working farmers, and optimistic and skilful artists at the same time who help in preserving the traditional art of water puppetry.