Mr. Liem is the sixth or seventh generation of water puppeteers in his family. One of his father’s puppets is on display in the Louvre, and both men have taken their show on the road to more than a few countries. Mrs. Liem says she did not bargain to become the third and fourth hands of the water puppet performances, but then, she also did not immediately understand that Mr. Liem would give over performing in the larger public venues in favor of installing a thirty-seat theatre on the fourth floor of their tall, narrow home inside a warren of tall single family houses. (Before the area was carpet bombed, the neighborhood comprised one-story houses like the blue one below. In those days pathways too narrow for two motorbikes to pass each other conveniently served the community well enough. Now those walkways separate three and four story buildings creating claustrophobic and vaguely exciting ravine-passages.)
Mr. Liem carves his own puppets from fig tree wood. Each one is hollowed out to provide room for the mechanisms that move arms, legs, mouths, and the sinuous spines of dragons and phoenixes. Each one is carved, sanded, lacquered, dried, sanded, lacquered (up to four times). A puppet might last six months given a work schedule of two performances a week. Some, perhaps, get damaged when Mr. Liem takes the whole shebang apart and carts it off to an elementary school or community center.
Mr. Liem’s performances, while rooted in a centuries’ old tradition, mix scenes from village life—a flute-playing boy happily astride his water buffalo, a boat race, two buffalos fighting for alpha status—and modern themes like why motor scooter racing is dangerous and why the local policeman is your friend—unless you’re racing your scooter with Quang from down the street.
The water in Mr. Liem’s tank, by the way, is muddy and reddish because, in the name of verisimilitude, he has stained it with silt from the Red River, which gets its name for obvious reasons.
Mr. Viet is also artistically inclined. He lives in Tho Ha, a village a ninety minutes east of Hanoi. The town supplies rice paper to restaurants, and bamboo frames covered with circles of rice paper crackle like crickets in the noontime sun. Mr. Viet’s wife, pouring a liquid rice batter onto a hot surface with one hand and rolling the cooked tenth-of-a-wafer-thin pancake onto a bamboo frame, can make four or five rice paper wrappers a minute. We all tried our clumsy hands at it and produced deformed pancakes at a far slower rate.
Mr. Viet’s great-grandfather’s picture has pride of place across the room from the Viet wedding photo. A grandson watches a video that teaches the toddler English via nursery rhymes and cartoon figures singing happily.
Mr. Viet is prosperous; he is an elder of the village of 8,000. He has retired and spends his time teaching school children how to play traditional Vietnamese instruments. Radios broadcasting from one house after another suggest there are other musical interests, doubtless influenced by the number of karaoke bars one sees along the highway.
In the Upstairs/Downstairs version of this account, there is the wet market across the river and a few miles down the road. Here, every organ you never wanted to eat is available. So are Beetle nuts that will turn your teeth black and your mind blank if you chew them constantly for a decade or two. Here you can buy your fish live or watch the Amphibian Lady tear the legs of your dinner’s frogs right before your sinking eyes. Or you can watch the Fowl Lady stuff a chicken headfirst down in a wide-ended funnel, slit its throat, and collect the blood in a plastic cup. Blood and chicken go home together, with feathers. The veggie tables are, naturally, much more civilized establishments. On the fence about going vegetarian? Stop by for free samples of anything you need.
The Frog Lady
Free Range Strong-Legged Chicken. Honest
Beetle Nut, Decorated