Dao Thuc Water Puppetry

The water puppetry guild in Dao Thuc Village, 10km from Dong Anh (Hanoi), is well-known both at home and abroad. Over the years, it has performed in several foreign countries such as China, the Netherlands, Thailand and Japan. The village now has become an interesting destination for foreigners to discover the Red River delta’s culture.  

Taking Highway No.3 from Hanoi to the centre of Dong Anh, then turning right and continuing for 10km, we arrived at Thuy Dinh – the water puppet stage in Dao Thuc Village. Here, Ngo Minh Phong, head of the village’s water puppetry guild told us about the history of the village’s water puppetry. According to a stele at the village’s communal house, the master of water puppetry was Nguyen Dang Vinh who was a eunuch during the reign of King Le Y Tong (1735 -1740). After returning home, he taught the villagers weaving, carpentry and water puppetry. However, only water puppetry has thrived until now. To commemorate him, the villagers annually hold an incense-offering ceremony on February 24 according to the lunar calendar.

Puppets are made from light wood, colourfully lacquered and are attached to a bamboo rod and controlled by pulleys.

Even the tiny details are carefully examined before the performance.

Behind the stage, puppeteers make the puppets perform skits based on traditional stories with folk
songs playing in the background.

Folk music contributes to enlivening the performances.

At the end of the performance, the split-bamboo screen separating the puppeteers and the
audience is lifted to expose the talented puppeteers of the Dao Thuc water puppetry guild.

Thuy Dinh, a replica temple façade of traditional northern architecture set up on a beautiful pond surround by green trees, is the main stage for water puppet shows in the village. During the performance, puppeteers stand in the waist-deep water behind Thuy Dinh, separated from the front stage by a split-bamboo screen and handle puppets with bamboo rods, ropes and pulleys hidden underwater. “The performing skills of the puppeteers in the guild have improved thanks to combining ropes and bamboo rods to control the puppets,” said Phong. Each maneuver of the puppets is skillfully manipulated to be natural and match the characters’ speeches as well as the tunes and beats of the background music.
The plots are closely related to Vietnamese folklore or daily routines, featuring the culture and people of the Vietnamese countryside. Audience interest focuses on skits such as fire crackers and flag raising, dragon dances, peacock dances, frog catching, swimming fish, Thach Sanh fighting evil and Van singing. Each puppetshow for visitors includes 10 to 15 skits. During the village’s festivals, puppeteers can perform more.

The image of farmers in the field is reproduced with water puppetry.

Raising ducks.

The art of Van singing is depicted through water puppetry.

The peacock dance.

The familiar image of “the buffalo and ploughman” is recreated with puppets.

“Wu Song slaying the tiger” skit.

Foreigners give big rounds of applause for water puppetry performers in the Dao Thuc guild.

Audiences take pictures of water puppetry performances.

At the present time, the Dao Thuc water puppetry guild has over 50 members. Besides working as farmers, they spend most of their time making wooden puppets, which are carved to resemble famous figures in Vietnamese traditional stories with a height of 30 to 40 cm and then lacquered to be water proof. They also create new performances to enrich the show. This is the reason why the guild has received much praises from audiences domestically and internationally. The Dao Thuc water puppetry guild won a gold medal on Ethnic Cultural Day in 1989 and a silver medal at the 1st National Water Puppetry Competition in 1994 for excellent performances.
Each month the Dao Thuc water puppetry guild receives many groups of foreigners. Takashima Fujiko, a Japanese tourist, said: “This is the first time I have been to Vietnam. I have visited many interesting places in Hanoi but watching water puppetry in Dao Thuc makes me understand more of Vietnamese history, culture and the people who are very humble and hospitable”.

Story: Ngan Ha – Photos:Tran Thanh Giang