A beautiful Vietnam Airlines flight attendant and voracious traditional art enthusiast has been keenly devoted to promoting Vietnam’s hallmark water puppetry at her restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City which sells a rustic delicacy.
Around 8pm every night, diners at Homemade Restaurant, located on Nguyen Van Trang street in District 1, eagerly take their young children upstairs for a free show in water puppetry.
Water puppetry is a long-standing tradition of Vietnam, according to Wikipedia.
Its shows are performed in a pool with wooden or lacquered puppets controlled by puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen using large underwater rods to support the puppets.
Thanks to this dexterous manipulation, the puppets look as if they were moving over the water.
The restaurant specializes in delectable “bun dau” (rice noodle served with fried tofu cubes and shrimp paste), which is a Hanoi culinary delight.
Hoang Huong Giang, the restaurant owner, was tired out after manipulating puppets with both her hands during a 30-minute show.
Her skills and energy paid off with roaring applauses and infectious laughter from the audiences, particularly young children.
The cozy stage which resembles a miniature theater welcomes even more diners and audiences on weekends.
“Visitors who come only for some tea are also welcome to the water puppetry shows,” Giang said.
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Most first-time visitors get intrigued by the restaurant’s tasteful décor, with its walls adorned with nice paintings and a shelf loaded with worthy books on Hanoi.
Their surprise will soon melt way upon them knowing that Giang was born into an artistic family. Her paternal grandfather is revered composer Hoang Giac while her father is seasoned folk culture researcher Hoang Nhuan Ky.
It was Giang’s father that instilled and cherished her passion for folk art and culture since she was a little girl.
Instead of studying abroad on her parents’ wishes, 18-year-old Giang decided to settle in Ho Chi Minh City where she was later offered a job as a flight attendant for national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines.
The more she travels and tries out mouth-watering dishes in different countries during her 13 years on the job, the more she becomes infatuated with Vietnamese folk art and cuisine.
Inspired by childhood sights of foreigners entering Thang Long Puppetry Theater for puppetry shows, Giang decided to debut such shows at her “bun dau” shop.
Her father has also sent local troupes and artisans on trips to perform water puppetry in many countries, but has few opportunities to stage such shows at home.
“I’m concerned that foreigners would have to tell future Vietnamese generations about what water puppetry is about,” Giang shared.
Giang’s father introduced her to respected artisan Phan Thanh Liem- a seventh-generation descendant of a family proficient in water puppetry in the northern province of Nam Dinh.
“Learning water puppetry is not so tough, but one has to convince their instructor of their zeal and longing to pursue the art to the very end. That’s also why I do not invite troupes to perform at my restaurant but is set on mastering the craft myself, though traveling is quite a big problem,” the woman divulged.
Giang also sent five of her staffers to her master’s home in Nam Dinh to practice the craft so that they can take her place whenever she is flying.
“My hope is that youths and audiences in Ho Chi Minh City would gain easier access to water puppetry, which is both a cultural allure and is expressive of Vietnamese people’s deep-rooted desires to harness water power and the Mother Nature,” she noted.
Giang braved her family’s and friends’ objections in dedicating a 100-square-meter floor as part of a house which she rents for almost US$7,000 a month to a miniature water puppetry theater.
Her puppetry stage seems to be in sharp contrast with the hustle and bustle of the downtown areas in the economic hub.
Giang shared she does not mean her water puppetry shows as a PR ploy for her “bun dau” shop as several think, as the shop is her third in HCMC and she already has a good clientele.
One can easily tell how much Giang is enchanted with the art by seeing her putting on a waterproof outfit and boots and immersing herself the entire evening to manipulate the puppets.
“Though my puppets don’t look as gorgeous as those on sale at fine arts shops, they have been used by generations of artisans. I’ve turned down many offers in buying the dolls,” she revealed.
The air hostess added that unlike other stages where between five and seven performers manipulate puppets during a show, she maneuvers them by herself with both hands.
To tailor her acts to young audiences’ tastes, Giang alternates old tales with modern-themed, educative stories such as discouraging youths from racing their bikes on the street or breaking traffic safety rules.