The tradition of Vietnamese water puppet shows dates all the way back to the 11th century. Unlike the shadow puppetry found in Thailand, puppet shows in Vietnam take place over a waist-deep pool of water; puppets are controlled from below. The secret of how puppeteers control the puppets from beneath the water has been closely guarded for centuries - see if you can figure it out!
Musicians on either side of the pool provide the music and sound effects for the water puppet show with traditional instruments while also doing the voices. Water puppet shows haven't changed much over the years; typical themes are deeply rooted in rural traditions such as planting rice, fishing, and village folklore.
In the keeping of tradition, Vietnamese water puppet shows are typically performed with no English. The language makes little difference; the theatrics of the colorful puppets and the constant wonder of how the performers can hide beneath the water is enough to keep the water puppet shows entertaining!
Vietnamese Water Puppets
Don't expect realistic movements or intricate costumes found at puppet shows in other parts of Asia. The wooden puppets used in Vietnamese water puppet shows are handmade and can weigh up to 30 pounds each! The stage and puppets are awash in vivid colors; colored lights and a foggy mist over the murky water add to the mystery.
At the end of each performance, the eight puppeteers typically come out of the water to take a dripping bow.
The History of Vietnamese Water Puppets
Water puppet shows are thought to have originated around the Red River Delta in North Vietnam sometime in the 11th century. Simple stages were constructed around flooded rice paddies; puppeteers regularly suffered from leech bites and other problems from standing in the murky water for so long.
The first Vietnamese puppet shows weren't just for the entertainment of villagers - the shows were thought to keep the spirits entertained enough that they would not cause mischief!
How Vietnamese Water Puppets Work
The secret of how water puppet shows work has been kept quiet for centuries. The puppeteers even have their own dialect and codewords to prevent someone from overhearing talk of a particular technique.
Trying to figure out exactly how puppeteers can control the intricate movements blindly is part of the magic of each water puppet show. Great shows of skill include passing objects from puppet to puppet and other coordinated movements which have to be done by instinct rather than sight. The musicians providing voices for the show - who can see the puppets - sometimes shout codewords to warn the puppeteers when a puppet is not where it should be.
Water Puppet Show in Saigon
The most popular water puppet show in Saigon is unquestionably the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Located inside of a giant sports complex between Tao Dan Park and the Reunification Palace, the Golden Dragon show regularly sells out.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in Saigon has two daily shows - 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. - and adds a third show at 8 p.m. when there is suitable demand. Tickets to the one-hour show are around $4; purchase your ticket in advance from the ticketing window. You can save $1 or more on admission by purchasing your ticket directly from the theater rather than from travel agents and hotel receptions who tack on a commission.
The cascaded theater seating is a help, however seats are sold from front to back. The earlier you buy a ticket the better chances of getting a seat close to the action! The ticket window is open from 8 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. - closed between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. for lunch.
- Read about other things to do in Saigon.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre is located at 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in District 1 - just east of Tao Dan Park. When entering the giant sports complex, turn right from the gate to find the theater. The theater is approximately 15 minutes walking from the Pham Ngu Lao tourist district.
- Read more Vietnam travel information.