It seems water puppetry has been continuously found in Vietnam, where it is called mua roi nuoc (mua, dance; roi, puppet; nuoc, water). The earliest mention is an 1121 CE inscription from the Doi Pagoda in Ha Nam province describing an event for King Ly Nhan Tong (1066-1127) at his birthday celebration, which included a swimming tortoise and fairy dancers, scenes that remind us of figures seen today.
A water puppet stage from the period of the Later Le Dynasty (1533-1708) is still found in Long Tri Lake facing the Thay Pagoda (Thai Binh Province). There performances, as part of the annual temple festival, continue today.
Few older puppets have survived in the tropical climate, but Keo Pagoda and village troupes in Thai Binh have some older figures from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, 30-40 centimetres tall with mechanisms to move their arms.
Touring pools were introduced in the l930s, but the political instability from the l940s (World War II) through the end of the South East Asian War (1975) put the tradition at risk. However, village performers, trained in the Phuong societies of the past, cooperated in the l970s to share with urban professional puppeteers their secrets, thus creating contemporary art. Entering the second decade of the 21st century, puppeteers still manipulate the colourful wooden lacquered figures by the use of long bamboo sticks hidden under the murky water.
Music in contemporary performances is drawn from cheo and the folk repertoire. Instruments include a 16-string zither (dan tranh), a two stringed violin (dan nhi), flute (sai), a moon lute (dan nguyet), drums (trong), and clappers. The hour-long performance is a series of items (of one to seven minutes). First, the flags marking the stage space appear. Next Teu, the clown who has descended from heaven, introduces the show. Nostalgic and playful scenes of village life follow. The climax is often a battle scene in which Chinese marauders attack, threatening Viet independence. The enemy is subdued. Next a boat scene may show the legendary hero Le Loi returning the sword that won independence to the golden tortoise (a scene which supposedly took place on Hanoi’s “Lake of the Returned Sword” where a major water puppet theatre stands at present). Fairies and the four sacred animals (lion, tortoise, dragon, and phoenix) provide the denouement with their promise of prosperity. The structure echoes themes of recent Vietnamese history, moving from an agrarian idyll to a successful war of independence.