Think you know everything about puppets? Think again.

While finger puppets, sock puppets, handheld puppets and the entire Jim Henson family (think Sesame Street, The Muppets and Fraggle Rock) have long been delighting audiences, the Vietnamese have enjoyed their unique water puppetry (called Múa Rối Nước) for centuries.

In English, the literal translation of Múa Rối Nước is “making puppets dance on water.” And that they certainly do – the Vietnamese puppets appear to gracefully glide, dive and swim through water in a spectacular aquatic show. Think of this Vietnamese folk traditions as Cirque du Soleil’s O meets Broadway’s Avenue Q.

The water puppets themselves are distinctive works of art, made of wood and then lacquered to remain watertight and endurable. The puppets move about through their stage of waist-deep water with puppeteers hidden behind a screen using large bamboo rods or a pole and string apparatus concealed underneath the water to control them while still seeming invisible. (The puppeteers stand in the waist-deep waters behind the curtain as well). The effect is stunning and seamless, giving the illusion of the puppets virtually coming to life. Puppets pass objects from puppet to puppet with various awe-inspiring coordinated moves – all of which have to be done by instinct rather than sight as the puppeteers are behind the screen.

Most shows feature music, dialogue and sound effects as well, spoken and played by performers on the side of the stage – and sung and spoken in Vietnamese. But don’t worry about language barriers as the gestures of this style of dynamic puppetry needs no language to be understood.

Water puppetry traces its roots all the way back to the 11th century and is a tradition unique to North Vietnam, originating in the Red River Delta. And while the art form has spread south to other parts of Vietnam, it has retained its original charm and flair. Water puppetry began as a way to entertain villagers when rice paddy fields would flood (and to stave off spirits, keeping them amused so as not to cause mischief!) The first puppeteers would stand in these waist-deep waters and give the hard-working villagers a fun show. To this day, themes continue to concentrate on daily rural life (such as fishing and planting rice) and time-honoured folklore.

Many details of these puppet shows remain shrouded in mystery. Their popularity eventually led to competitions amongst villages and puppet societies became extremely exclusive, with members using code words to keep others from discovering their tricks. The puppets themselves can weigh anywhere from 2 to 30 pounds each and range in height from about 12-40 inches. Coloured lights and a foggy mist spread over the watery stage, adding to the excitement and mystery.

If travelling with us to Hanoi, AmaWaterways takes all guests to a traditional water puppet show in its area of origin. But there are chances to see these shows in other cities throughout the country. In particular, Ho Chi Minh City has wonderful shows although many suggest booking in advance.

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