A lot of guides list the water puppet show as a "must see" in Hanoi. I was frankly quite skeptical, but was happily surprised to find that the show really is something that shouldn't be missed.
Water puppetry is an art form which originated in Vietnam at least 1,000 years ago. The puppets are essentially marionettes, except that in place of strings or wires, the puppets are mounted on long poles, which remain totally hidden under a shallow pool of water. The workings of the puppets can be quite elaborate, and part of the fascination of the show is figuring out how each puppet works.
The performance is a series of unconnected skits or vignettes. Some simply depict scenes of everyday village life, such as planting rice or catching fish. Others act out famous legends or myths. Each act uses specially made puppets, each of which is different than the ones used by the other skits. The puppets are carved of wood and painted or lacquered with bright colors. The water and lighting provides some spectacular effects with only these very simple elements.
Shows last about an hour and consist of about 16 vignettes. The entire performance is accompanied by a live orchestra sitting to the left of the stage. The traditional instruments include drums, flutes, xylophone and the harp-like dan bau. The band is accompanied by a singer as well. Many of the acts have spoken dialog as well, but it isn't necessary to understand the words in order to appreciate the scenes.
Water Puppet Performance Times and Admission
There are several performances every day, beginning at 16:15, with the last performance at 21:15. You must book your seats in advance, as the performances tend to sell out every day. You're advised to drop by the theater in the afternoon on the day you want to attend. There are two classes of tickets. First class tickets cost 40,000 Dong (-40,000.00 USD) while second class is 20,000 Dong (-20,000.00 USD). It doesn't appear that there is any difference between the first class and second class tickets, other than where you sit. At one time, the theater gave out VCD copies to first class ticket holders, but this has been discontinued.
There is a special show on Sunday at 9:30 when the admission is 20,000 Dong for adults and 10,000 (-10,000.00 USD) for children.
Note that performances begin at exactly the time booked. The doors open 20 to 30 minutes before the performance and close at the begriming of the performance. If you're more than a couple minutes' late, you may not be admitted.
For more information, you can see the web site of Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.