This ancient art form of water puppetry (roi nuoc) originated in northern Vietnam, and Hanoi is the best place to see it. Although it is at least 1000 years old, it is virtually unknown outside of Vietnam until the 1960s. It is believed to originate with rice farmers who worked the flooded fields and used the water as a dynamic stage for the performance of the art. The farmers carved the puppets from water-resistant fig-tree timber (sung) in forms modelled on the villagers themselves, animals from their daily lives and more fanciful mythical creatures such as the dragon, phoenix and unicorn. Performance were usually staged in ponds, lakes or flooded paddy fields.
Contemporary performances use a square tank of waist-deep water for the ‘stage’; the water is murky to conceal the mechanisms that manouevre the puppets. The wooden puppets can be up to 50cm long and weight as much as 15kg. Some puppets are simply attached to a long pole, while others are set on a floating base which is in turn attached to a pole. Most have articulated lims and heads. The puppets are manouevred by puppeteers who stand in the water behind a bamboo screen.