Dinner & puppets an enchanting evening

(No.5, Vol.4,Jun-Jul 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photo: Lang Viet Restaurant

I was excited to attend a water puppet show, as I had never seen one before. In Saigon, there are not many places where one can see the performing of water puppetry. That’s one of the reasons Mr Le Trong Khang, the owner of Lang Viet Restaurant, was determined to bring water puppet shows to his restaurant in April of this year. He wanted water puppetry to become familiar with young Vietnamese and foreigners and he wanted to add to the short list of entertainment places for tourists in Saigon.
Pham Ngoc Thach Street is crowded with restaurants and coffee shops, but it is easy to recognize the Lang Viet Restaurant’s façade, which features a northern Vietnam-style village gate with two-metre puppets in front. Water puppetry was developed in Northern Vietnam in the 11th-12th centuries.
Taking a leaflet, I saw the titles of 14 acts in a show performed once a day at 6.15 p.m. The show lasts 45 minutes. The ticket costs VND150,000.
The theatre is a 250 square metre room which can hold 102 people. The room has no chairs, so I, three other Vietnamese and a group of 14 Japanese tourists, sat on wooden steps, separated from the stage of murky water.
The façade of a shrine was built on the stage. Bamboo curtains were used to cover the backstage, where puppeteers did their magic to give souls to wooden puppets, making them move easily and rhythmically on the stage.
A female chèo singer and artists playing musical instruments such as drum, flute, wooden fish, gong, two-string violin sat on the two sides of the stage.
The lights went out. The musicians started playing. This was the first time I had heard chèo music; my hair stood on end and I didn’t understand the lyrics very well, but gradually I became fascinated by the singer’s voice and the sounds from the instruments.
The show could be easily understood. Most of the acts depicted humorous stories in the daily lives of famers. A scene accompanied with bamboo flute played by a herdsman showed buffaloes ploughing, peasants sowing rice seeds and then suddenly, a green rice field emerged from underwater and famers happily looked after their field in the rain.
In another scene, two men on a small fishing boat appeared on a river full of fish. One was rowing the boat and the other was holding a pipe and smoking. It surprised me when the man blew out a stream of smoke from his mouth.
Some acts depicted the lion dance, dragon dance, phoenix dance and fairy dance. They were outstanding. I loved the phoenix dance; a couple dancing to seduce each other. When both of them went underwater and came out, an egg emerged. The couple repeated the action and this time baby phoenixes were born.
The more I watched the acts the more I was interested in them. I and the audience laughed and clapped loudly after each.
People can go to Lang Viet and watch puppetry without eating a meal, but the food is well worth it. Lang Viet Restaurant has nearly 50 Vietnamese dishes on the menu and cooks are ready to prepare other dishes if guests request. The waiter enthusiastically introduced specialities of the restaurant. I did not want to choose familiar dishes such as spring roll, assorted rice cakes, fresh rice vermicelli with spring roll and grilled pork, pho or bun bo Hue. I ordered ‘Crispy morning glory salad with shrimp and mango’ for VND165, 000. I rarely see this dish on the menu at other restaurants. It was so delicious. Though the ingredients were common, the cook cleverly combined them to give a new flavour; fried morning glory mixed with thin strips of mango, shrimp and sauce. Next, I tried ‘Steam escargot soup Hanoi style’ for VND135,000, ‘Over-baked baby clams with salty egg’, (VND135,000), and ‘Pork ear meat salad,’ (VND135, 000,) with pork ear meat and vegetables, rolled together in rice paper and then dipped in fish sauce. Although I was full, I could not resist the dessert ‘Lotus and longan sweet soup’ for VND35,000. This dish is a specialty of Hue and a good choice for hot days.
The restaurant also serves Vietnamese buffet, including 35 dishes at VND350,000 per person.

Lang Viet Restaurant
36 Pham Ngoc Thach St,
Dist.3, HCMC. Tel: 0903955634

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