The Hanoi Water Puppets Show illustrates the birth of Vietnam. Here, we talk about its story and what it’s like to go to the show.
In the beginning, there was…
A dragon. Well, at least a dragon king from the sea. I’m not quite sure what the difference is but since there’s a dragon involved (and a king – my name!) I’m not going to ask questions, I’m just going to get on with the story.
In the beginning, there was a dragon king who lived in the sea. There was also a beautiful fairy who lived in the mountains and her name was Au Co.
One day, during an altercation with a fairly unspecified monster, the two met and fell in love. They bore an egg sac which hatched exactly 100 children and thus the Vietnamese people were born.
Sadly for them, but rather poetically for the rest of the world, their love could not overcome their geological lifestyle preferences.
Thus, they separated, the dragon king taking 50 children to the oceans and the fairy taking 50 to the hills, establishing the hill and sea tribes that continue to this day.
I first heard this story in the tight gloom of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi.
The lights went out, the audience settled. A lone spotlight and singer appeared.
Huddled into a theatre no bigger than a church hall, with chairs narrow enough to make Ryanair look generous, the water puppets popped up one by one. Swimming in deep-hued lights and a hint or two of smoke, the dragon sang to the fairy and behold the Vietnamese were born! Well, some of them, anyway, as cheeky creamy puppets bobbing and jigging about on the water.
There followed an hour or so of equally brilliant pieces, backlit with shifting veils and fans, but I found it difficult to concentrate because of the missing piece of the puzzle.
How were these puppets moving about? I squinted, I stared, I cheated and used the telephoto lens on my camera to zoom in…but still I could see no strings.
And then, as the applause sounded out and the full lights came up, they appeared. People who had been standing behind the screen, thigh deep in cold water: the puppets on extended wooden sticks.
Drop down crackingly smackingly gorgeous.
We filed out of the thronging theatre into the not quite sleeping quietness of Hanoi’s Old Quarter after dark. A few motorbikes circled around us, other tourists departed by the bus load, and we walked along the lake.
I never thought about the dragon king again.
Until I reached the Bay of the Descending Dragon and stepped onto a vessel. One that bore the name Au Co.
The bay itself I’m sure you know already, albeit from another name.
And so the next time I met Au Co and the king of dragons, the water was no longer a siphoned stall on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake.
The water had become a UNESCO world heritage site. And it went by the name of Halong Bay.
Related: A Luxury Cruise Along Halong Bay
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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