Dong Ngu village in Thuan Thanh district, Bac Ninh province, continues to draw crowds to its water puppet shows.
Its troupe is one of 14 active water puppet troupes in Vietnam with unparalleled mystery, mastery and commitment from its performers.
Dong Ngu water puppetry reflects the humble life of people in northern Vietnam’s Red River delta. Spectators are intrigued by folk tales and “Quan Ho” love duets that are unique to this troupe. The themes include offering betel, going to the pagoda, playing on a swing, and playing the flute while herding buffalos.
Founded in the 10th century and revived in 1958, these water puppet performances have primarily entertained the people of Dong Ngu and nearby villages during festivals. A statue made of jackfruit wood is preserved by the Dong Ngu villagers to honor the founder of local water puppetry.
Villager Nguyen Dang Dung said, “When Vietnam was ravaged by war during the 10th and 11th century, the art fell into neglect. Older villagers started to revive the folk tales again in the 1950s. In the late 1980s, when life had become more stable, we resumed the water puppet performances.”
Puppeteers have donated their own property and tremendous efforts to revive the ancient art, according to Nguyen Thanh Lai, head of the Dong Ngu water puppet troupe.
“We had nothing when we started reviving the art. Some gave us pieces of wood or a whole bamboo tree. Others carved the puppets out of wood and painted them, so that puppeteers could practice and bring them onto the stage,” said Lai.
Dong Ngu villagers travel dozens of times each year to perform and promote their water puppetry and “Quan Ho” love duets to audiences all over Vietnam. Dong Ngu performers control their puppets with both strings and rods, enabling more complicated movements. Their puppets can even crawl on all four limbs. It is the folk tales retold by the water puppet troupe that make it distinct from other troupes.
Nguyen Dang Dung said their passion has fueled a revival of Dong Ngu water puppetry. Dong Ngu puppeteers today have a very hectic schedule telling 200 folk tales using 200 puppets.
Duong Van Giao, the oldest puppeteer in Dong Ngu village, told us, “The puppets differ in size and facial expression. ‘Teu’ – the storyteller water puppet – is always smiling and bigger than the other characters. The puppets who sing ‘Quan Ho’ love duets wear fancy, colorful costumes.”
There are actually two water puppet troupes in Dong Ngu village: Dong Ngu and Luy Lau. Many tour agencies now incorporate Dong Ngu into their tour programs. VOV5
In recent years, the preservation and development of water puppetry has been paid attention by many localities, including the northern province of Nam Dinh.