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In Hanoi, Vietnam, puppets dance on water

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The puppets glide and dance on water, seemingly of their own will, reenacting vignettes of Vietnamese folklore.

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A fisherman, yanked from his basket-boat by a spirited catch, takes off in hot pursuit with Olympic-quality swimming prowess. Serpentine dragons spit squirts of water. Lotus-crowned fairies pirouette to sonorous melodies produced by a traditional live orchestra.

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But where are the puppeteers? They’re standing waist-deep in water behind a split-bamboo screen. Thus concealed, they manipulate their lacquered, handcrafted marionettes – fixed to thick wooden plates with rudders – using long bamboo poles and jute strings on pulleys worked under water.

“It takes years of hard work to learn the tricks,” says Nguyen Hoang Tuan, director of Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. “Performers work as a unit. Sometimes six of them need to operate a single puppet.”

Unique to northern Vietnam, water puppetry was developed by farmers in the Red River Delta who staged performances after harvests in fish ponds and flooded rice paddies.

With a hallowed thousand-year history, water puppetry is still going strong.

“The puppets embody the playful spirit ... of the Vietnamese people,” says Nguyen Thi Hua, a college student in the audience. “They’re like us with all their charms and foibles.”