The Puppet Master

An evening of surprises at Lang Viet…

Few words have the ability to strike true fear in the hearts of gourmands everywhere like “dinner theater.” That simple phrase conjures up images of overly smiling performers finishing up a scene as one of the Von Trapp children just in time to don an apron and serve up a limp salad to a roomful of blue-haired early birds – an concept long on promise but all too often, short on delivery.

So it was with some apprehension that I set out to Lang Viet (36 Pham Ngoc Thanh, D3), a restaurant cum water puppet theater, known mostly to tour groups and travel agencies. Cue eye roll and involuntary shudder. What I found, though, was a night of surprises.


Open for just over a year now, Lang Viet is the brainchild of Le Ba Khang, born in Vietnam’s Central Highlands to a northerner father and a southerner mother. His vision in opening up the spacious 300-seat restaurant with an impressively well-designed theater featuring 150 stadium-style seats was to blend culture and food, traditional water puppetry and authentic Vietnamese cuisine. “Preserve and promote” would be an apt slogan for the restaurant, applying both to the show and the food.

A remodeled villa housing indoor and outdoor seating, Lang Viet, meaning “Vietnamese village,” aims to be all things to all people, an extravaganza of everything Vietnam, from the recreated village gate at the entrance to the stone statues in the landscaped courtyard to the intricate woodwork adorning the property, all to the tune of a whopping VND10 billion in renovations. The décor is “95 percent Vietnamese,” says Khang, as he waves his hand over the Dalat wine bottles used as flower vases, one of the surprisingly few kitschy elements in the otherwise elegant space.


Khang’s obvious enthusiasm for showcasing Vietnam finds its truest form, though, in water puppets, an art form that grew out of traditional water games in the Red River Delta. One of only three places in Saigon to feature water puppetry (the other two being The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater and at the National Museum of Vietnamese History by the Saigon Zoo), the 45-minute show (an optional VND150,000 add-on to dinner, show times are 5pm and 6:15pm) is endearingly whimsical and somehow manages to avoid the drawn out narration and screechy soundtrack commonly associated with any faux cultural shows aimed at tourists. Save for a badly translated pamphlet, the six musicians (with one particularly adept at making sound effects) and nine puppeteers are thankfully left on their own to perform a dozen or so folksy vignettes highlighting countryside activities and myths with surprisingly elaborate effects. The puppeteers, who train for up to two years, guide the wooden puppets using 1.8m rods, recreating realistic movements, from the craning of a phoenix’s neck and the shaking of its tail feathers to the undulating body of a boy swimming after a wayward duck. However, the true beauty of water puppetry is found in what you don’t see – the performers standing in chest deep water, hidden behind a curtain, and the mechanics of the puppets, hidden under the water’s surface.


“Even though we never actually touch them, the puppets reflect the mood of the puppeteer. If you’re happy or sad, it shows in the way the puppets move. This is truly art. Otherwise, it’s like a movie that you might as well watch on DVD,” says Hai, one of the lead puppeteers, with more than 20 years of the craft behind him.

Build It, They Will Come
While the dinner service mainly draws in tourists, Khang’s aim is really to introduce water puppetry to local Vietnamese. “Probably two of ten Vietnamese will have actually seen water puppetry somewhere other than on Youtube or at the zoo,” he says. “It’s a shame because it’s one of the few things that is uniquely Vietnamese. But if I build it, they will come.”


The night’s final surprise begins with the post-show dinner. While there is an a la carte menu, Lang Viet is hoping to mimic the success of elevated street food places like Nha Hang Ngon with its strangely named “Calling Buffet” (VND350,000+), a selection of 27 generously portioned dishes from all over Vietnam. Diners are able to order as many dishes as they want, with the waiters trained to give recommendations. Travelers to the north will recognize the very competent versions of Nem cua be Hai Phong (crab-filled spring rolls) or the Banh tom Tay Ho, the ubiquitous shrimp toast (here made with a sweet potato base) served all around Hanoi’s West Lake. Foodies will be excited to find some dishes less common to foreigners, like the Rau luoc kho quet, boiled vegetables dipped in a reduced sweet/salty fish sauce, originally a dish born of economic hardship, and the Goi trai va, an addictive savory/sweet Hue specialty made from fresh figs, sate, shrimp paste and beef. The ambitious but consistently good menu also has some twists on the norm. The Goi rau muong chien gion xoai tom features an unexpected texture in the lightly fried morning glory leaves, almost tempura style, topped with julienned mango and whole shrimp, tossed in a refreshingly citrusy sauce of caramelized palm sugar and freshly squeezed kumquats. Another standout was the Tom cuon ba chi hun khoi, bacon- wrapped grilled shrimp on a bed of mango soaked in a passion fruit coulis.



While perhaps the puppet show isn’t something you’d want to watch again and again, Lang Viet, as a restaurant, certainly stands on its own merits and deserves a wider audience than simply tourists. Come for the kitsch, stay for the food.



Images by Ngoc Tran

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