The bass of the gong rumbles through the dark theater. Our knees are pressed against the seats in front of us as we sit, surrounded by tourists and a handful of local mothers with their kids, all waiting in anticipation for the show to begin. The self-made happy hour we've just enjoyed on a bench next to the lake has resulted in an optimal buzz, perfect for the Thanh Long water puppet show.
Dating back to the 11th century, water puppetry is one of Vietnam's most treasured forms of folk art and entertainment. When the rice fields of the Red River Delta would flood, villagers would break out their wooden puppets and hold a show inside the rice paddy. A pagoda was put up to hide up to eight puppeteers, who stood in waist-high water and controlled the puppets with long strings and wooden rods. In modern theaters, a Vietnamese orchestra with vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, monochords, gongs, and bamboo flutes, along with lighting, fire and dry ice, now adds to the show. we quickly realize that this is not your local public library puppet show. It's both a traditional art form and a major production. And it's impressive.
The 3 to 4 foot lacquered wood puppets glide across the water's surface in perfect choreographed unison, much like an Olympic synchronized swimming team. Each scene tells a different story, all in Vietnamese, forcing us to quietly spitball what's going down on stage. Dragons breathe fire from the water, birds fly in from the ceiling, a monkey scurries up a tree and we're having a blast.
After this classic performance that dates back centuries, we step out into the bustling Hanoi streets. From the ancient to the modern, the streets are filled with hip hop dance troupes, roaming roosters, musicians, and vendors selling cocktails from carts. The energy is buzzing and this is clearly the local choice for a Saturday night out.
Art, music and culture, the old and the new, all in one night in Hanoi.
P.s. Did we mention the hip hop dancing...