Roi Nuoc is a traditional Vietnamese performance art using colorfully painted and costumed wooden puppets. They most closely resemble marionettes, with jointed arms, legs and heads. Roi Nuoc are controlled by a puppeteer by way of long poles that are hidden under water. The stage is a small pool, with a scenic backdrop, hiding the puppeteers. Performances are based on traditional folklore or historical events. Music and audio, either recorded or live, accompany the performances.
Puppetry is a traditional performing art long existed among the ethnic groups living in Vietnam. It originated from the wet rice civilization since the Hung Kings founded the country. The Sung Thien Dien Linh stele erected at Long Doi Pagoda, Doi Son commune, Duy Tien district, in Ha Nam province in 1121 under the Ly Dynasty bears the inscription that the puppet show was first staged in honour of the King’s longevity.
Under the natural conditions and their agricultural activities, the Vietnamese people have been close to the water. For this reason, Vietnamese peasants have created water puppetry into a unique performing art of the country. In the past, water puppet shows usually took place when the farm work had been generally completed, in springtime or in village festivals. The French called water puppetry with gentle puppet figures “The soul of the Vietnamese rice fields”, and commented, “With creativeness and sense of discovery, water puppetry can rank among the most important performing art forms of the puppetry theater”.
The way of using water to activate the puppets and to hide the manipulating apparatus and the maneuvering of the puppet figures constitute the most splendid creativity. Water gives breath to puppet figures and makes them look more lively and cheerful. Water is also involved in the show together with the puppets as it was once commented, “Water also becomes a character of the puppet show”. The peaceful water surface gently undulating with a flock of swimming ducks becomes romantic in the illusory veil of smoke when a group of fairies land for singing and dancing. But it also becomes seething and furious during naval battles or when powerful yellow dragons are emerging.
A French newspaper article wrote: “The puppet figures are manipulated with an unimaginable cleverness. It’s like they are commanded by magic power”. This is the uniqueness, attractiveness and creativeness of water puppetry.
In the past, water puppet shows used to be staged in the broad daylight and in the open air. Few theatrical performances show such a perfect harmony with the natural scenes as does the water puppet show. Amidst romantic scenery, spectators have a chance to contemplate an artistic genre in which land, water, green trees, cloud, wind, fire and smoke are present, so are curved red tile-roofed communal houses. In fact this is a perfect harmony between art, nature and human beings.
Vietnam’s puppetry has been known with its two main genres: Stage puppetry and water puppetry. Stage puppetry has several forms such as hand and rod puppets from Dong Minh in Hai Phong Port City and Te Tieu in Ha Tay province, string puppets from Moc Thieu Hy in Cao Bang and Bac Thai provinces. Water puppetry, a unique traditional art genre only exists in Vietnam.