Much has been made of Vietnam’s emergence as one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Apart from the great natural beauty of its beaches, mountains, rivers, streams and rice fields, significant value addition comes from the nation’s cultural diversity.
Culture is one of the most important draws, because visitors are very interested in and intrigued by how a destination culture differs from their own.
Ha Van Sieu, Deputy General Director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, says cultural development is one of the foremost aims of tourism.
As such, the use of culture and culture-based products to promote destinations has become a strong trend. It is not an exaggeration to say that culture and culture-based products and services have become determining factors in a destination’s attractiveness and competitiveness.
For its part, Vietnam has been paying heed to developing cultural values that are expressed through various art forms, markers that help tourists explore the nation’s cultural quintessence.
In this special series, we discuss ideas and opinions expressed by foreign tourists, and tourism insiders to figure out how culture helps tourism flourish.
In doing so, we highlight typically Vietnamese cultural extravaganzas that have been among the most creative and successful products so far.
While these events have different features and perspectives, they serve the common function of preserving and popularising traditional cultural values. They also demonstrate how diverse cultural products have contributed to tourism growth.
After choosing Vietnam as a destination for a family holiday based on many recommendations from friends and relatives, Maeve Cleary, a New Zealand student, and her family want to explore how different the culture here is from her own country.
“I think it is important to immerse yourself in different cultures to understand how different parts of the world live and appreciate how much cultural diversity there is out there, said Cleary.
“Travelling to Vietnam means that I get to experience a culture that is so starkly different from my own.”
Like Maeve Cleary, many foreign tourists are drawn to Vietnam not just by its natural landscapes, but also its cultural diversity, and the hospitality of locals that is a marker of national culture.
Recognising this, Vietnam has been promoting culture to enhance its attractiveness apart from offering other incentives like visa exemptions, improved infrastructure and accommodation.
In recent times, some of the cultural products that have delivered excellent value include water puppetry shows, the Quintessence of Tonkin, Hoi An Impressions Theme Park and the Lang Toi (My village) Show.
“I found the history of the originals interesting. It’s nice to be here and be a part of your culture,” said American tourist Bob Gregg after a water puppetry show in downtown Hanoi.
“Tangible and intangible cultural values can all become potentially attractive tourism products if they are exploited properly and efficiently,” Ha Van Sieu, Deputy General Director of Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, told the Vietnam News Agency.
Many localities are actively developing their tangible and intangible cultural assets as a means of developing comparative advantages in an increasingly competitive tourism marketplace, emphasizing local distinctiveness in a globalizing world.
Several countries in the region have also successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of cultural shows in attracting tourists.
The Alangkarn Show at Pattaya, Thailand is an example. It is an impressive production telling the story of core beliefs of the Thai people and explaining Thai history through traditional Thai art and design. Boasting a state-of-the-art hexagonal theater design that can comfortably seat 2000 guests, the show has attracted a large number of tourists every year and helped Thai tourism earn big revenues.
The Robot Restaurant Show in Japan and Apsara Theatre Restaurant in Cambodia are doing likewise, wowing audiences.
In Vietnam, the Mua roi nuoc and the outdoor spectacle, The Quintessence of Tonkin, are two cultural extravaganzas that have popularised traditional cultural values and promoted the image of Vietnamese tourism.
Water puppetry, or mua roi nuoc, is a stage art that highlights the uniqueness of Vietnam culture, showcasing the creativity of and its people. The cultural rootedness of this entertainment is that it stems from Vietnam’s wet-rice civilisation. Created in the ponds of 11th century, Vietnamese water puppetry is a swift, quick-moving art form. In a 3-feet-deep pool of water, puppets appear and disappear in a flash. There is wonderment in the air as puppeteers, hidden behind a majestic pagoda, manipulate the characters with underwater poles, accompanied by a talented troupe of musicians playing Vietnamese folk instruments.
The Quintessence of Tonkin (Tinh hoa Bac Bo) is an outdoor spectacle that depicts peaceful landscapes and particular heritage of the northern region as well as Vietnamese history and culture, using hundreds of performers, an interactive stage and state-of-the-art technology. Ten years in the making,The Quintessence of Tonkin presents traditional elements of Vietnamese culture in a contemporary and innovative way, facilitating a memorable exploration of the Red River Delta – the beating heart of northern Vietnam.
Over the past three years, the number of foreign tourists to Vietnam has seen an astonishing rise. From 8 million foreign tourists in 2016, the figure was expected to double and reach nearly 16 million in 2018.
Cultural shows like these have left deep impressions on tourists, and played no small part in having them return to the country.
After two days of sightseeing in Hanoi, Maeve Cleary and her family booked tickets for The Quintessence of Tonkin. They were impressed by the use of an unusual canvas to paint Vietnam’s striking cultural treasures.
“I didn’t expect such a large cast and am impressed with the amount of effort and thought that went into the props and production,” Cleary said after the show.
“We got a condensed and entertaining view of Vietnamese culture and traditions.”
Two dragons gleam golden in the dark waters.
Suddenly, they plunge their heads with a splash and come back up, spouting fire on each other.
Such clashes and other dramatic scenes from Vietnamese mythology as well as daily life activities of a farmer in a rice growing culture are depicted in water puppetry shows in Hanoi and elsewhere that draws hundreds of tourists every day.
For American tourist Ira Barrows, a water puppetry show is must-see in the capital city for those who love original cultural expressions because it is uniquely Vietnamese.
“When the guests in our hotel ask what should we do, I say maybe number one is to go to the Old Quarter and eat Pho and the number two maybe the water puppets because you can’t see them anywhere else in the world. It is traditional and the traditional art must be preserved,” Ira Barrows told the Vietnam News Agency after watching a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre.
Barrows and his wife first came to Vietnam in 1994 when his wife got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Southeast Asian music. Then, they saw water puppetry for the first time in a small theatre far away from Hanoi. The show impressed them so much that they always try to see it each time they visit Vietnam.
Water puppetry dates back to around one thousand years when villagers living in areas full of ponds in the Red River Delta devised an ingenious post-harvest recreation tradition.
Today, there are about a dozen professional water puppet troupes across Vietnam. The Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre is one of two troupes in Hanoi. Every week, the theatre draws thousands of viewers, and water puppetry has become staple on the well-trooden tourist circuit.
The wooden puppets of men and women and animals deftly manipulated by puppeteers to the tune of traditional melodies played on folk instruments make Vietnamese water puppetry a one-of-its-kind attraction for foreigners, and a memorable experience for first-time viewers.
In Vietnam for the first time, Americans Bob Gregg and his wife, Laura Gregg wished to learn and understand more about the history of the nation and its people. They watched a water puppetry show based on the high recommendations it has received on prestigious travel website Tripadvisor. Despite not quite understanding the content of the stories, they were very excited.
“I have never seen anything like it. We have traveled around the world. It’s just a very unique show,” said Laura Gregg.
The setting of the water puppetry skits is rural and strongly linked to Vietnamese folklore. They tell of daily life in rural Vietnam and depict Vietnamese folk tales told by grandparents to their grandchildren. The activities of harvesting, fishing and celebrating festivals are highlighted.
Legends from Vietnamese mythology and events from national history are narrated by the short skits. Many of the skits, especially those involving daily life, are given a humorous twist.
The setting is a pond, in the middle of which stands a hexagonal platform. The platform is framed by a roofed pagoda painted in red and green, made of brick or wood. The structure is five metres long and four metres wide. The stage is submerged about a metre under water.
To the merry sounds of drums, flute, moon-shaped guitar and rattle, a dragon emerges from the water and swims towards the audience. The fluid movement of its metre-long tail as it slithers through the water makes it seem alive. This feat is not easily accomplished.
Puppets of various sizes – some three or four feet tall - are beautifully crafted. The deft hands of Vietnamese peasants turned pieces of fig wood into figures of men and animals like the dragon, lion, turtle, fish, horse, and unicorn. Every single part of the figure is movable, and each of them is controlled by only one puppeteer manipulating a two-metre wooden pole from behind the bamboo curtain.
“To control water puppets is harder than controlling other kinds of puppets,” said Nguyen Phuong Nhi, head of artists with the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Nhi, who started puppetry 35 years ago, said each puppet weighs about 15 kilos and it is no easy task for female puppeteers.
“It’s very difficult to make wooden puppets come alive in the water,” she said.
At present, indoor theatres and plastic pools have replaced the outdoor venues of the past. Conditions have improved for the performers as well, with the use of wet suits to ward off the cold, but the magic of the art remains.
What little you can see of the poles and the underwater platforms do little to distract from the astonishing art, said Le Thu Hien, meritorious artist of Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre.
“Puppeteers concealed behind a colorful pagoda, are simply amazing. Each of the show’s short scenes, over the course of nearly an hour, seems to conceal another minor miracle,” said Bog Gregg.
At present, while the art of water puppetry still retains its traditional style, it has also been raised to a higher theatrical level.
“To attact tourists, we select nearly 20 of the most interesting stories from more than 400 traditional legends and stories to tell the audience in every 50 minute show,” said Nhi.
In 1992, a landmark event happened in the art’s history. Vietnamese water puppetry went abroad for the first time.
“A Japanese tourist came to Vietnam and was deeply touched by water puppetry. After he returned home, the theatre was invited to perform water puppetry in Japan,” Nhi told the Vietnam News Agency.
“We were so nervous at that time, but we were so proud that our traditional cultural values could reach overseas. Foreigners liked it very much.”
Since then, the Vietnamese traditional folk art has been performed in many countries including the US, France, Italy, Germany, Australia and Mongolia.
Traditionally, the water puppet show opens with a piece of Cheo, a traditional melody.
Seventeen puppeteers perform in the four part programme which focuses on rural surroundings, everyday life activities, celebration ceremonies, and mythological animals.
Some highlights of the programme are Apparition of Festival Flags, when flags emerge from the water, the Harvest Festival, with villagers celebrating after finishing their hard work, the boat trip of Emperor Le Loi, a Vietnamese folktale, and Catching Frogs, where the jumping frogs need specially skilful puppeteers to control them.
Ira Barrows and his wife have watched other puppet shows in different parts of the world, but Vietnamese water puppetry is their favorite. They also enjoy the freshness of the show when they return each time.
“I could not remember exactly, but I would say maybe ten times. It is always worth coming again and again as the show is often updated to keep it fresh, Ira Barrows said.
“Today, they had many coloured fish that I had never seen before, and they have the cat. It goes up and down the tree with the eggs, and there’s the Phoenix.
“It is worth watching even when you know what’s going to happen.”
It is a peaceful night in the countryside. Then an extravaganza explodes.
Against the backdrop of a real mountain, replica village houses and pagodas set the scene for the The Quintessence of Tonkin, the grandest and most ambitious live entertainment project in Vietnam.
Whether it is the 4,300 square metre submerged stage, praised as “a feat of engineering”, or hundreds of performers being local farmers, this cultural extravaganza impresses in so many aspects as it immerses audiences in the charm, beauty and sacredness of the old countryside in Vietnam that goes back centuries.
“I can say it was enjoyable, very colorful and visually stimulating. Lots going on. Lots of characters and people. It’s very well done. I loved the water. The music was great,” said New Zealand tourist Anny Cleary.
After opening in Hanoi late 2017, The Quintessence of Tonkin has developed most characteristics of a world-class performance.
Years in the making with hundreds of performers, an interactive stage, state-of-the-art technology, and a stunning setting, this live spectacle is a must-not-miss highlight of any trip to Hanoi.
But while the show is a big entertainer, it has the loftier aim of popularising the history and heritage of Tonkin, an agricultural region in northern Vietnam, said Do Viet Anh – Deputy General Director of Tuan Chau Hanoi JSC, the show’s producer.
Seconding Anh, Hoang Nhat Nam, director of the show, said: “Mountains and water are very important aspects of Vietnamese folklore and spiritual life, which is why the show takes place on a lake and the Thay Pagoda Hill is visible.
“A visit to the Thay Pagoda, one of the oldest Buddhist pagodas in the country, can be combined with a trip to see the show, contextualising both experiences,” Anh added.
A replica of the famous Thuy Dinh pavilion from the Thay Pagoda complex, complete with a lake and bamboo forest makes it a lavish production that uses modern entertainment technology to great effect.
The stage, large enough to accommodate all 250 performers, mostly local farmers, is permanently submerged under 10 centimetres of water. This allow a unique theatrical display and provides an unusual canvas for portraying Vietnam’s more striking cultural treasures like water puppetry and dragon boat races in a creative manner.
“As many as 150 local farmers were trained for two years to bring this extravaganza to life,” director Nam said.
“It was a beautiful performance, very visually stimulating and it was endearing to know that the cast was made up of people from the surrounding farming communities, young and old,” said Maeve Cleary.
The spectacle highlights different art forms, including poetry, music, painting, sculpture and architecture as it delves into Vietnam’s cultural and spiritual essence.
“It also had water puppetry so if you go to the show you get all of Hanoi’s recommended entertainment in one,” Cleary said.
“I was very pleasantly surprised. There was always something in the foreground but also something going on in the background,” the New Zealand tourist said.
Sarir Afarinesh, an Iranian Austrian who lives in Vietnam, said she wanted her visiting family to see the show, which she found amazing.
“It’s very special and unexpected. You don’t know that so many things happened. It’s a big surprise and it’s very well made,” she said.
“It has everything you want to see.”- VNA