by Cassidy Armbruster
“Mmm:” the instinctive reaction to the sweet smell of incense. It’s not uncommon for your day in Vietnam to be pleasantly interrupted by the smell of burning incense. Whether you’re shopping in Hoi An, taking a stroll in Ho Chi Minh City, or visiting a place of worship in Hue- incense burns everywhere. But did you ever wonder where incense is made? Did you ever wonder what kind of people make incense or where they make it? During our day tour in the Mekong Delta, you will find answers to the most obscure of questions regarding incense.
Deep in the delta is a kind and welcoming family that works tirelessly tending to their farm animals and making incense. I came on somewhat of a dreary day, seeing as the family’s chickens had been stolen the night before. The woman of the household solemnly explained that someone had cut open their fence during the night to steal the chickens, costing them lots of money that they did not have. Despite a stressful morning, the woman couldn’t avoid her workday, and she graciously took the time to explain to me exactly what she does and how she does it.
The family purchased an automatic incense stick making machine a few years ago for a hefty, but worthy price of $750 dollars. The woman places a thin bamboo stick through the machine, and out comes an incense stick. Half of the stick is painted a bold red color for decoration. The opposite end of the bamboo stick that is burned is made from a mixture of ingredients. The brown color comes from the bark of mangrove trees, making a sticky powder. This powder is stirred in the mixing machine shown above. The ratio of the mixture is 1 kilogram of sticky powder to 1 liter of water. After a significant amount of sticks are processed through the machine, the woman sets them outside to dry under the beaming sun for two days.
Although this machine method of incense making is efficient, it is not the only method practiced today. If you spend any time in Hue, I recommend you try our day tour where we visit a family that makes incense the traditional way. When asked why the family owns an incense stick making machine, but chooses to commit part of the day to making incense the traditional way, they responded that they didn’t want the tradition to die. Instead of putting the mixture and bamboo stick through the machine, it is mixed by hand and spread evenly on the stick with a paddle. This method may be more difficult and time-consuming, but the family is respectably dedicated to preserving the tradition.
Interestingly, the incense made at the family’s home in Saigon is unscented. Because it is unscented, the incense is sold at a very cheap price in bulk to people throughout the village. The incense is also sold to factories where it is dipped in perfume for scent, and is later resold at a higher price. One batch of incense shown below is sold for $1.5. The price seems small, but the profit is even smaller. Because so much is spent on materials and the machinery, one batch of incense only profits 30 cents. The darker incense in the woman’s right hand below will have to be sold at an even cheaper price, reducing profit by a greater margin. The incense is darker because the mixing powder was too old or too dry. This demonstrates how important timeliness and exact measurements are. On an average day, the family will sell 50 kilograms of incense.
The task looks repetitive, and the woman assured me that it is, but the repetitive task is a necessary one in order to provide for her family. Incense isn’t just a valued product in Vietnam, it’s a meaningful ritual, thus the woman’s work doesn’t go unnoticed. Incense is burned during festivals, during the first 15 days of a lunar calendar, in storefronts for a pleasant aroma, to give offerings to ancestors, and for death anniversaries. So burn away, and remember to appreciate it’s powerful effect the way the Vietnamese do.