HANOI — As acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary The Vietnam War continues to earn rave reviews around the world, one of Vietnam’s leading developers and tourism providers has drawn the curtains back on a complementary look at the Southeast Asian country’s culture.
Earlier this month, Tuan Chau Hanoi JSC’s first theatrical production, The Quintessence of Tonkin, opened in a 2,500-seat amphitheater on the outskirts of Hanoi with 150 actual farmers serving as actors in a series of tales about countryside life.
Six nights a week now, 100 professional performers join the amateurs on an inventive stage that sits just below the surface of a lake as the cast carries out scenes depicting everything from the rise of Vietnamese Buddhism to the complexities of the feudal education system.
“Water and mountains are very important in Vietnamese folklore,” said Hoang Nhat Nam, the show’s director. “That’s why Quintessence takes place on a lake, and in a venue right next to a mountain.”
At the top of that mountain is Chua Thay, one of the country’s oldest Buddhist pagodas and a popular destination during the sacred Lunar New Year (or Tet) period.
Located 25 kilometers west of Vietnam’s capital, the 1,000-year-old shrine plays into the spectacle through an architecturally similar centerpiece that serves as a constant prop, and through a story about how the temple was founded.
The ubiquitous water allows for many of Vietnam’s most iconic cultural activities, such as water puppetry and dragon boat racing, to be creatively displayed.
“There has never been anything like this in Vietnam,” said Carmen Marienberg, The Quintessence of Tonkin‘s CEO. “It is so exciting to bring something completely fresh to this market and offer visitors to Hanoi something to do that they’ll never forget.”
Performance-art technicians devised a world-class sound and lighting system for the cutting-edge production, but traditional instruments — such as wooden drums and brass gongs — figure prominently in the sensory experience, as well.
Most of the buzz, however, is likely to be generated by the most nascent members of the ensemble, Nam said. The farmers spent more than a year learning the tricks of a trade previously unfamiliar to them — “and they’ve mastered it,” he said.
“These farmers know rural life better than anyone,” said Nam. “It is their story, so I wanted them to be the ones to tell it. It’s more authentic that way.”
The Quintessence of Tonkin shows daily except for Mondays, starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are US $40 for adults and $20 for children aged 5-11. Kids under 5 years old are not permitted. A dinner-and-show option is available also.