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Vietnam’s other puppetry art

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Bao Ha village in Haiphong province has a long history of creating and performing puppets. Here, two types of puppetry co-exist: water and non-water puppetry.

Together with the popular water puppetry, non-water puppetry has gained increasing recognition from both domestic and international audiences.

Bao Ha village in Haiphong province is one of three traditional non-water puppetry cradles in northern Vietnam. Local craftsmen and artisans have preserved and promoted their unique art since the 16th Century. 

Local elders say that Nguyen Cong Hue was the first artisan who made puppet figures just to make use of his available wood blocks. The traditional wood-craving craft in this region provided favorable conditions for the art form to bloom.

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Bao Ha puppets are made from the hard and durable wood of the jackfruit tree. Artisan Nguyen Van Tuom, head of the village’s puppetry art troupe, is not only a puppeteer but also among the few craftsmen who can make lively and movable wooden puppets. 

He said, “Basically, each puppet has three parts: the body, the clothes and a single control stick hidden under the clothes. All puppets are inspired by real life humans and their activities, from faces to movements and costumes."

"Carving the face is the most difficult job as we need to create distinctive facial expressions for each role. It’s not at all easy to make a puppet, so only a few craftsmen in my village can do it. Most puppeteers can only sing and perform, make puppets," he noted.

Unlike other villages, Bao Ha craftsmen use only one built-in stick to control the puppets. Other movements are handed by the performers’ arms, which are carefully hidden under the puppet costumes. 

This means the audience will not detect any stick or rod, that’s why the puppets more life-like. Artist Le Giang is head of Six Space, a group of multidisciplinary artists and art researchers who want preserve traditional arts. She has been studying the non-water puppetry for years.

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She said, “Bao Ha puppets are inspired  by the daily life of Vietnamese people, so they are  rustic and familiar. As for the structure, these puppets are unique because the craftsmen in Bao Ha only use one stick inside to control the whole puppet, unlike those from other puppetry villages or countries who may use many rods and sticks to perform.”

One of the most significant ways to distinguish water puppetry and non-water puppetry is the performance stage. For the water form, the stage is the village’s water palace, which is located in the middle of a pond. This makes the spectators can only watch the puppet show from afar. 

Meanwhile non-water puppetry is performed on a simple stage, which makes the performers and the audience closer and thus, creating emotional exchanges and communications between them. 

Artisan Nguyen Van Tuom said that water puppetry is more popular than the non-water form because it’s easier to perform. “Combined with the sound of water splashing and the lights, a performance of water puppetry forms a very beautiful and intriguing scene. In addition, a water puppet is much easier to make because puppeteers can hide the control sticks under the water. And for that, creating a non-water puppet is much more complex as you have to think of other methods to hide the sticks.”

Created in a land with a rich culture, Bao Ha puppets show many of Vietnam’s traditional features. They are accompanied with famous folk operas. The stage recreates rural scenes in Vietnam. 

The puppets enter the stage via the “Gate of Birth” and exit via the “Gate of Death”, the two concepts that were inspired by traditional beliefs.

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Mrs. Pham Bich Nhuan, a Bao Ha villager, has been performing puppets since 1978. She said most performers in her village have not taken any professional training course, but learned from their parents and other elders in the village.

She said, “We usually perform during the first three months of the Lunar New Year, which is a festive season for the Vietnamese people. We also perform at some special events and major celebrations in our village. We use excerpts from old traditional Vietnamese operas for our puppet performances such as “Thach Sanh Folk Tale”, “A Pair of Lapis Lazuli”, and “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh”. 

"The puppeteers have to immerse themselves in their roles to act soulfully with the puppets and to communicate with the audience. Every part of the job, including acting, singing, and controlling the puppets, is equally important,” she added.

All the folk tunes used in the non-water puppetry depicts the lives of Vietnamese people in the old days. Using only traditional operas is also an important aspect of Bao Ha non-water puppetry that makes it special and unique. 

Artisan Nguyen Van Tuom said, “The art of non-water puppetry has been passed down to us from our ancestors. That’s why we only use traditional folk tunes such as Cheo, or traditional theatre, to accompany puppet shows. Any modern material would not be relevant.”

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Like water puppetry, the non-water puppet performing art also manifests many cultural values of the people in the Red River Delta. However, the lack of promotion and attention from both the government and the public audiences are threatening the survival of the art. 

Artist Le Giang said, “As water puppetry is getting more and more popular, many young puppeteers in Bao Ha village are switching from performing the non-water form to the other. Bao Ha’s puppetry art thus attracts less and less attention. Luckily, there are still many artists, mostly in their mid 30s-40s, still keeping up the traditional art. They are now trying to inspire the younger generation to continue preserving and promoting the art.”

Recently, artist Le Giang and her colleagues at Six Space organized a performance and workshop featuring Bao Ha non-water puppetry in Hanoi to help preserve and promote this unique art. 

The participation and positive reception of many young Vietnamese and foreigners raises hopes that the art would soon be known to audience in other regions and countries.


Source: VOV

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