On the stone stele in Long Doi Son Pagoda in Tien Son commune, Duy Tien town, Ha Nam province, there is an inscription saying that water puppetry was performed to celebrate the king's birthday in 1121. It means that water puppetry had appeared and been played by local people before that time. 

In this artistic genre, puppeteers stand waist deep in the water behind a screen and operate the puppets on large rods.

A water puppetry performance

In 1984, water puppetry impressed foreign audience and Vietnamese expats when it was performed by artists from the Vietnam National Puppetry Theater in France. Information and comments about the performances of Vietnamese puppeteers were published on international newspapers.

Meticulously-made wooden puppets with different sizes danced, played, and glided on water surface. Farmers ploughed with buffaloes; children played in water in summer; frogs, fish, ducks with different colors swam one after another; mysterious dragons and phoenixes appeared in the hazy smoke. Those moments must have brought joy and admiration to the audience at the performances. 

The attractiveness of Vietnam’s water puppetry continued to be affirmed in the heart of foreign friends when Vietnamese puppeteers were invited to perform in France, Italy, and the Netherlands three years later.

Appeared a thousand years ago, the unique artistic genre still exists and develops, as it is associated with people’s daily life, entertainment, and production activities. Many foreign countries, including Egypt and the Netherlands, used to come to Vietnam and learn about it. Vietnam’s puppetry art has also integrated and added new forms, including land puppetry, shadow puppetry, stick puppetry. However, water puppetry is unique, which cannot be found in any other country. 

One of the unique values of water puppetry is puppet making. Puppets in different shapes and painted by hands demonstrate the genius and creativeness of the Vietnamese people.

In 1956, President Ho Chi Minh issued a directive to establish the Vietnamese puppetry sector. His desire was to form a professional puppetry troupe to bring more joy and laughter to children. Since then, the puppetry art has contributed to enriching the spiritual life of generations of audiences across the country.

Over the past years, together with preserving and promoting the core values of the folk water puppetry, the Vietnamese puppetry sector has paid attention to building and developing land puppetry and approaching other puppetry forms in the world.

Water puppetry performances have been brought to both amateur and professional stages. Most recently, at the 5th International Experimental Theater Festival 2022, which took place in Hanoi from from November 15 to 26, the Vietnamese puppetry showed off its unique features and competed with other theatrical forms of other countries. At "Festival Ninh Binh 2022 - Trang An connects heritage," Vietnamese water puppetry shined with many types of cultural heritage in the country.

At present, the Thang Long Water Puppet is one of the famous professional units preserving and promoting water puppetry. It has set a record for the only theater in Asia performing water puppetry 365 days a year. For nearly 20 years, together with organizing puppet performances to entertain domestic and foreign audience, the theater has actively popularized Vietnamese water puppetry to dozens of countries such as the U.K., France, the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands.

Like other traditional theater forms, puppetry is facing many difficulties due to the severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the appearance of private puppetry units has affected the quality of puppetry performances and put pressure on the sector. 

To promote the unique folk art form of Vietnam, People’s Artist Vuong Duy Bien said that it's time to have a "conductor" to lead the nation's unique art form in the right direction and promote its values. He emphasized that it is more essential to draw the attention of management agencies in researching and compiling dossier to seek recognition for water puppetry as national intangible cultural heritage.

Translated by Tran Hoai