The origin of water puppetry, roi nuoc, is obscure beyond that it developed in the murky rice paddies of the Red River Delta, and usually took place in spring when there was less farm work to be done. The earliest record is a stele in Nam Ha Province dated 1121 AD, suggesting that by this date water puppetry was already a regular feature at the royal court. Obscured behind a split- bamboo screen, puppeteers standing waist- deep in water manipulate the wooden puppets, some weighing over 10kg, attached to the end of poles hidden beneath the surface. Dragons, ducks, lions, unicorns, phoenixes and frogs spout smoke throw balls and generally cavort- miraculously avoiding tangling the poles. Brief scenes of rural life, such as water-buffalo fights, fishing or rice- planting, take place along side the legendary exploits of Le Loi and the promenade of fairy- like immortals. Evens fireworks emerge to dance upon the water, which itself takes on different characters, from soft- focus and placid to seething and furious during naval battles.
The art of water puppetry was traditionally a jealously guarded secret handed down form father to son; women were not permitted to learn the technique in case they revealed them to their husband’s families. This contributed to its decline until the art seems in danger of dying out altogether. Happily a French organization, Maison des Cultures des Monde, intervenes and, since 1984, with newly carved puppets, a revamped programmer and more elaborate staging, Vietnam’s water puppet troupes have played various international capitals to great acclaim - and can be seen nightly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Where before gongs and drums alone were used for scene-setting and building atmosphere, today’s national troupes often maintain a large ensemble, similar to Hat Cheo , including zithers and flutes. The songs are also borrowed from the Cheo repertoire, particularly declamatory styles and popular folk tunes, and the show often includes a short recital of traditional music before the puppets emerge to create their own unique illusion.