In small doses at least, the sweet, warm and intense scent of incense can be alluring. And with the end of the year approaching families throughout Vietnam are hastily performing the annual ritual of praying for their ancestors, perhaps more fervently than ever in what has been a godforsaken year. The unmistakable scent that is obligatory ahead of Tet is wafting through pagodas galore across the city.
Keen to understand how this humble scented stick, a signature of the spiritual life, is made, Chào visited Quang Phu Cau village in Ung Hoa District, a mere 30 km from Hanoi city center. For over a hundred years, northern Vietnam has got its stash of incense from this tiny village, which gives 70% of households an income.
A shade of violently hot-pink seems to permeate the village as we arrive. Rows and rows of neatly huddled “oven-fresh” incense bouquets line the brick floors of almost every alley. They almost resemble bright bunches of flowers.
The incense sticks are made from bamboo. Artisans manually split these sturdy canes in half, again and again, until they dwindle down to not much thicker than a toothpick, merely millimeters wide.
Next, the sticks are soaked in water and laid out in the open to dry, not just for hygiene but to make them more combustible, or so a villager tells us.
The spiritual sticks come in a myriad of colors, but the most iconic is undoubtedly fuchsia. A huge pot of swirling hot pink is lit up from kindling below, and the artisans swiftly plunge a bundle of the sticks for less than two seconds, each becoming uniformly colored.
Every villager claims their own secret recipe for the incense paste, which creates the slightly spicy herbal fragrance. Well-made incense should use natural ingredients, and not reek of artificial perfume. Common ingredients include cinnamon, blackbutt, thyme root and anise, though the most common is agarwood, a fragrant, dark resinous wood.
Like many things, the application of most incense paste has been “industrialised,” with artisans inserting the sticks into a machine one-by-one. But for the incense aficionado out there, there still exists a handful of families opting to do it all by hand. It is a lengthy, pain-staking process, but it is said to preserve the scent for longer and create incense with more smoke.
Finally, the sticks are laid out to dry in the sun after. Villagers claim that artificial methods of drying are ineffective, causing the fragrance to fade away.
And voila, the sticks are ready for use. But remember, whenever lighting incense at a household altar or local temple, always choose an odd number of sticks to light them up. An even number signifies bad luck!
Visitors can easily get to Quang Phu Cau village, it is not far from the city center, by following National Highway 21B, Provincial Road 429. Or, one can take bus route number 91 that departs from Yen Nghia bus station in Ha Dong.
All photos by Duong Hoang
Additional reporting by Linh Nguyen