While researching things to do in Hanoi, I kept seeing the “Thang Long Water Puppet Theater” pop up. People who had visited Hanoi were saying it’s a “must-do” while in the city. But, no one was really verbalizing what was so great about it.

The pictures were even less helpful. All it looked like was some kitschy puppets dancing in a small pool of water. The website was also, at least at the time, very slow to load, and definitely didn’t “sell it” for me.

I just couldn’t see why everyone was so jazzed about the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. But, seeing that so many people had recommended it, and being of a most curious nature, we decided to give it a try.

After going to one of the hour-long shows, the best way I can explain it is this: going to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for the water puppets and the play is like going to the Sistine Chapel to see a really nice fresco. You’re missing the point of the experience.

As we sat down in our very tight seats, we were struck by how small the theater is. (It’s probably a maximum seating capacity of 400 people, which is probably why they have several showings every day.)

The stage is built in the style of a temple at the top, with a pool of water down at the bottom. There are some random props, like rice paddies in the water, and a coconut tree at the edge of the stage that are used in some of the acts.

Once everyone is seated (and it does take some time as it’s consistently a full house in there), the announcer explains that this is a very ancient art form, dating back to the 11th century.

During the flooding season, villages would help to entertain themselves by putting on water puppet shows, making good use of the already flooded area. The people would make beautiful puppets that instead of being hung on strings are placed on rods. The puppeteers then hide inside of the stage, and glide the puppets along the water to tell their stories.

Before the show starts, though, the musical performers are introduced, and they play a couple of opening pieces. The musical performers that they’ve hired really are top-notch, and are worth the price of admission alone.

The narrator explains the history of the centerpiece musician: the Đàn bầu player. The “dan bau” was traditionally an instrument only played by men. Everyone could listen to the dan bau music and enjoy it, except for young ladies. The reason was their parents were afraid that the music of the dan bau was so beautiful that it would enchant them, and they would fall in love with the dan bau player.

I am happy to report that I somehow managed to keep my underwear on throughout the performance. (It was quite beautiful and haunting, though, I must admit.)

Nowadays, the dan bau is open to anyone to learn. The player at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is a very accomplished lady, and you could clearly see her love and passion for the instrument in her eyes, and in the way she played it.

After a couple of opening songs, the water puppets come out. The “play” was really a series of different scenes from daily life in the village.

Some of them were humorous, such as my personal favorite, the “Water Buffalo Fight”. (Oh, those mischievous water buffalo! Will they ever behave?)

Some scenes were romantic, like the man and woman signing a love song to one another – including a stolen kiss behind some palm tree leaves. Some were exciting, like the horse race between the men of the town. And, some were somber, like the procession honoring the local, village god.

The closing act is a recreating of the myth of the carp that became a dragon. It starts with an orange fish that swims and dances around in the water. After a couple of minutes, he disappears under the water.

About fifteen seconds later, filled with dramatic “changing” music, he reemerges as to dignified, sacred music as a brightly colored dragon. The singers start signing again as he glides along the entire lake, showing off his beautiful form.

For the grand finale, the puppeteer, using tricks of shadows and light to play tricks on the eyes, rises the dragon from the lake, where he proceeds to fly around the temple surrounding the stage, and off into the night in a brilliant splash of color.

It’s a lovely reminder that no matter how humble our beginnings, we can transform ourselves anew into something of great beauty, dignity, and power.

Don’t go to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for high-tech pyrotechnics, flashy puppets, and Tony-award winning theatrics. Go because it’s a quintessential part of Vietnamese history and culture.

It’s like riding the subways in Paris, or drinking wine in Tuscany, or haggling in a Moroccan spice market for the best price on saffron.  It’s not the destination that you’re going for, but rather the immersion into a whole different culture.