There is plenty of Vietnamese folk and traditional theatre aimed at visitors. If water puppets and showy costumes are not your thing, seek out small cafes that double as performance spaces where jazz and other vocalists perform almost within touching distance.
Traditional music is usually performed daily at the Temple of Literature.
Don't Miss: Punch & Judy in a Pool
The ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) was virtually unknown outside of northern Vietnam until the 1960s. It originated with rice farmers who worked the flooded fields of the Red River Delta. Some say they saw the potential of the water as a dynamic stage; others say they adapted conventional puppetry during a massive flood. Whatever the real story, the art form is at least 1000 years old. Performances take place at the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre.
The farmers carved the human and animal puppets from water-resistant fig-tree timber (sung) and staged performances in ponds, lakes or flooded paddy fields. Today a tank of waist-deep water is used for the ‘stage’. The glossy, painted puppets are up to 50cm long and weigh as much as 15kg. Some puppets are simply attached to a long pole, while others are set on a floating base, in turn attached to a pole. In the darkened auditorium, it appears as if they are walking on water. If used continually, each puppet has a lifespan of about four months: puppet production provides several villages outside Hanoi with a full-time livelihood.
Eleven puppeteers, each trained for a minimum of three years, are involved in the performance. Their considerable skills were traditionally passed only from father to son, for fear that daughters would marry outside the village and take the secrets with them.
Traditional live music is as important as the action on stage. Each memorable performance consists of a number of vignettes depicting pastoral scenes and legends. One scene tells of the battle between a fisherman and his prey, which is so electric it is as if a live fish were being used. There are also fire-breathing dragons (complete with fireworks) and a flute-playing boy riding a buffalo.
The water puppets are both amusing and graceful, appearing and disappearing as if by magic. Spectators in front-row seats can expect a bit of a splash!