When I was researching things to do in Hanoi ahead of my recent trip to Vietnam, one of the first items to make my list was a Vietnamese water puppets performance. This traditional art has been practiced for centuries and something every visitor should experience. While there are many venues, The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi is ahead of its class. For a glimpse into exactly what you can expect from a visit read on for all the details …
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What Are Vietnamese Water Puppets?
Rural folk in the Red Delta region have enjoyed lively performances of Vietnamese water puppets since the 11th century. The traditional art form was originally performed in flooded rice fields as a means for hard-working villagers to relax and escape the harshness of daily life. The shows depict elements of traditional rural life and are an important method of handing down stories to the next generation. The puppets, which are made of wood and are waterproofed with lacquer, are controlled by skilled puppeteers standing in waist deep water using hidden apparatus to create the illusion the figures are dancing on the water’s surface. A minimum of three years of training is required to master the art and in days gone by father’s would only teach their sons as it was feared that sharing with their daughters would mean that the secrets would be lost if they married outside of the village. I’m pleased to say this is no longer the case and during our visit a number of the puppeteers hiding behind the curtain were women. Despite the waterproofing, the puppets only have a life span of about 4 months when they are used daily and need to be frequently replaced. Each performance is accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music from a live band playing drums, cymbals, wooden bells, horns and bamboo flutes.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre Hanoi
In modern Vietnam, visitors no longer need to head to the communal ponds of the northern villages to enjoy this ancient art form. These days many cities have purpose-built theatres and the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi is arguably the most famous of them all. Until the 1960’s Vietnamese water puppets were largely unknown outside of northern Vietnam. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre was established in Hanoi in 1969 and locals and visitors alike streamed through the doors to experience this most curious of Vietnamese traditions. Not content to wait for the world to come to them, the master puppeteers from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre took their show on the road and have performed hundreds of cultural tours throughout the world including in Switzerland, Japan and the USA. It is by far one of the most popular attractions in Hanoi and tickets sell out well in advance.
Buying Tickets To Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
There are two ways to secure your self the hottest tickets in town; spend hours queuing up yourself for a bargain ticket or pay a bit extra and get someone else to do it for you. Should you chose to do it yourself, simply show up to the ticket booth at the front of the theatre and take your chances with the masses. If you chose this option, it is highly likely that you will not be able to secure tickets for the same day. Tickets from the booth will set you back just VND100,000 a piece (approx AUD$5.50, USD$4.40 or GBP£3.30). Or you can do what I did and book your tickets in advance through Viator. You will pay a little bit extra (approx AUD$14, USD$11 or GBP£8) but you will not spend a single minute in line and your tickets will be hand delivered to your hotel. I don’t know about you, but my time is valuable and I was more than happy to shell out the extra few dollars. I didn’t notice when I booked that there are two classes of tickets, standard and VIP. A VIP ticket will guarantee you a seat in the first four rows of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. We were lucky that our standard tickets happened to be in row E, just behind the VIP’s, but if I had my time again I would have splurged the extra AUD$6 for the upgrade. The show goes for roughly an hour and there are four shows daily; 4.10pm, 5.20pm, 6.30pm and 8.00pm.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre was a short walk from the Hanoi Glance Hotel where we stayed. We left ourselves plenty of time and were seated in seats E12/13 quickly and efficiently. As we waited for the theatre to fill a rat ran through the stalls and under the feet of some of the guests which created havoc. It did unsettle me and I kept a cautious eye on the ground after that. As the theatre lights went down and the stage lights began to glow a hush descended over the crowd before the first haunting strains of the band pierced the silence.
It wasn’t long before the stars of the show made their grand entrance. While traditional shows often tell a story in sequence, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre features a series of short skits with varying themes including the dragon’s dance, catching frogs, fishing and the eight fairies dance. While each story is narrated entirely in Vietnamese, it is possible to get the gist and there were many humorous moments that transcend language. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre puts a modern spin on the traditional art by incorporating dramatic lighting and special effects. Keep your eyes peeled for the fire effects.
The Final Word
It has been said that you haven’t really visited Vietnam if you haven’t experienced a performance of the famous Vietnamese water puppets. I was hopeful when I booked that the performance would offer the authentic experience I craved and would not be watered down to appease the hordes of tourists. I enjoyed the short show much more than I was expecting and I was surprised to find that the vast majority of the audience was Vietnamese. If you only do one thing while you are in Hanoi, I suggest you do this! Getting to Hanoi is a whole lot easier for my fellow Sydney Siders after Vietnam Airlines started flying the route direct in March 2017. I booked my flight from Sydney to Saigon with Vietnam Airlines on a whim and hadn’t completely decided on my itinerary. When it turned out I needed to be in Hanoi on night 1 to make things fit, I had little choice but to book a connecting flight to Hanoi with Vietjet for the same night. It was a long day and I really wish I had booked the direct flight. Make sue you read all my tips for booking a bargain flight before you make your next booking. It could save you thousands!
Have you been to Vietnam? What is your favourite thing to do in Hanoi? I’d love to hear your thoughts on my visit to the Vietnamese water puppets in the comments below.
Until Next Time …
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Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored. I paid for my visit to Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in full. As always, all opinions are my own. This post contains some affiliate links which will earn me a few cents to contribute to the running of this site if you make a qualifying purchase at no extra cost to you.