Monday, January 16, 2006

The Soul of the Rice Fields

Northern Vietnam's Peculiar Water Puppet Theatre

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A distinct, traditional art form found nowhere else in the world, Vietnam's Water Puppet Theater was born in the fertile Red River delta during the tenth century. Farmers, inspired by harvested, water-filled rice paddies began to stage impromptu puppetry shows on the water's surface as villagers gathered around the edge of the pond to watch. Often thought of as the "Soul of the Rice Fields" the world's first glimpse of Northern Vietnam's splashy, smoke-and-fire-filled acrobatic puppet extravaganza came only after the normalization of relations with the west.

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The show, made up of a number of skits, shows the life of everyday peasants, drawing on a wealth of folklore with a good dose of humor as farmers and forefounders establish and defend the country against forces of man and nature. Performed entirely in Vietnamese with no foreign translations or explanations, the meaning of most of these tales may be lost on most tourists, but its still a highly entertaining glimpse into the traditional folk culture of the northern Vietnamese.

Modern water puppetry is performed in a pool, the water surface being the stage. Puppeteers stand, waist deep in water, behind a screen, controling puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms hidden beneath the water's surface. Carved out of wood, these puppet often weigh up to 15 kg.

Puppeteers taking a bow.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides a vibrant vietnamese musical accompaniment as Cheo singers sing traditional northern Vietnamese songs, telling the story being splashed out by the puppets.

Getting Friendly with the Locals at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Capitol's curious citizens still gather around the famous Hoan Kiem lake, the heart of Hanoi, sitting on its banks and benches socializing and watching the city come to life. While there are no puppets splashing about in the lake's ever-green waters, the friendly, funny and outgoing people of Hanoi find other ways to amuse themselves.

As we wandered around the lake, waiting for the water puppet show to begin in a nearby theatre, a kind couple gestured for us to join them on a small bench, before commencing to converse with us in perfect Vietnamese. Of course we had no idea what they were saying, but thanks to a handy phrasebook we unburied from the bottom of a bookbag, we were able exchange greetings, ages and nationalities.

The man became very excited when I told him I was from America (My in Vietnamese, pronounced Mi). He pointed to himself before launching one arm up over his head, gliding it above him. Judging from the sound effects that accompanied it, I took this to be an airplane. Then, he pretended to hold a gun, aimed it up at where his hand had been flying, and began to pull the trigger as he followed it across the sky. He looked at me and smiled, pointing to himself, shooting at the plane and saying "My! My! (America)". Despite this somewhat unpleasant connection, he was very excited to shake my hand and smiled constantly as he tried to communicate with us (tried being the key word).

Never underestimate the power of gestures!

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