The Quintessence of Tonkin (Tinh Hoa Bac Bo) show is a magnificent visual feast, but getting there and back to Hoan Kiem wasn’t easy. Somehow, write-ups boasting the show’s intention of – “bringing Vietnam culture out to the world and helping nudge local culture closer to international friends” – didn’t quite ring true…
Vietnamese History and Culture
The creative production detailing Vietnam’s history and culture seems very much a show for Vietnamese families – not so much for foreigners and tourists. Even after reviewing the write-ups, the visual presentation was loaded with cultural nuances that those who haven’t lived in Vietnam probably won’t understand. That said, the evening was truly an adventure, even though it was fraught with challenges and frustration, i.e., waiting in extreme heat for the show to begin, wrong meeting place info, and pickup and departure time confusion.
The performance is a spectacular open-air show that’s received many awards and distinctions, like a record for the “biggest water stage in Vietnam”. Photography was prohibited, but most people in the audience sneaked in a few shots of amazing visuals that words can’t describe.
“Quintessence of Tonkin is staged outside entirely on water and provides a broad overview of Vietnamese village life, from folklore to music, poetry, water puppetry, Buddhism, and more.”
The show, produced by Tuan Chau Hanoi JSC and directed by Hoang Nhat Nam, has been open to the public for two years. It takes place in the western outskirts of Hanoi, about a one-hour drive from Hoan Kiem, depending on traffic. The performance lasts 60 minutes and includes over 250 performers, 150 of them local farmers living in the area.
“The Quintessence of Tonkin includes six acts presenting traditional elements of Vietnamese culture in a contemporary and innovative way.”
The venue is near Thay Pagoda, at the foot of Mount Sai (Thay Mountain). Thy Pagoda was built during the Ly Dynasty. and is located in Quoc Oai District, one of the “oldest Buddhist establishments in Vietnam“. It’s a popular pilgrimage site during Lunar New Year.
The spectacular show “draws inspiration from Thay Pagoda’s history”, The pagoda was founded by monk Tu Dao Hanh, “illustrating the ancient union between religion and monarchy”. Tu Dao Hanh’s reputation reveals his “great magic and kindness in helping people without asking for anything in return”. He was known as a “choreographer of traditional Vietnamese water puppetry”. Many of the performers were Buddhist who honor their patron deity, Tu Dao Hanh, during an annual Huong Pagoda Festival on the seventh day of the third lunar month.
“Water is a constant theme in the study of Vietnam.” The Quintessence of Tonkin brings the audience back to a “pristine time in the old countryside”. In this sacred atmosphere, they can learn about the cultural quintessence of the millennia-old history of the Red River Delta region, the heart of northern Vietnam”.
The stage was built between the viewing auditorium and the small hill where Thay Pagoda rests. It’s “permanently submerged under a thin layer of water and offers a performing area for up to 250 people at a time”.
The water stage “allows a creative portrayal of the area’s cultural heritage, using water puppetry and dragon boat racing. The show reflects beautiful Vietnamese music and the “peaceful sounds of rural northern Vietnam, like wooden drums, night crickets, brass gongs, and flowing water”.
The Quintessence of Tonkin is a worthwhile performance. The music and magnificent visuals are extraordinary and impressive. The deeper meaning of the performance will likely escape many foreigners, and it might not be a great venue for solo travelers, unless you’re brave and speak fluent Vietnamese :). It was a lesson in trying to gracefully fit in and enjoy the awe-inspiring performance, in spite of the discomfort and awkwardness of sticking out like a proverbial “elephant in the room” – an exercise in the Buddhist virtue of patience.