incense-making in vietnam

making visual and human poetry out of the most ephemeral of items

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We’ve all seen them and smelled them - from yoga parlours to out-of-the-way parties to, for those of us who travel, in pretty much every single temple all across Asia.  From sticks of varying sizes to month-long-burning circular ones and even small pyramids, each of them smelling something different - jasmine, cinnamon, spices and pretty much everything in-between.  Personally I fine myself liking some while others may be a bit too much, but there’s no doubting both the significance they play in buddhist and hindu ceremonies and how important they are for literally billions of people (yes, that’s more than 2 billion!).  And hey, photographically speaking, they just look awesome!

Sticks are being fed through the machine until they are smoothed out and in the appropriate dimensions.  In the process, all excess material is discarded.

Sticks are being fed through the machine until they are smoothed out and in the appropriate dimensions. In the process, all excess material is discarded.

I’m talking, of course, about incense sticks and, believe it or not, more than half of everyone consumed in the world are produced in Vietnam, and more specifically in two areas within Vietnam (the rest are made in China).  Contrary to what you may think, almost all of the production within Vietnam comes from small - like, really small - family-owned families.  Think about it - more than 20 billion incense sticks (of all kinds) every year come out of the hands - literally - of people like you and me with very little machinery involved but with a lot of backbreaking effort.

For most people, including the users themselves, incense sticks are inconsequential, ephemeral things, tiny consumables destined to be forgotten the moment their ashes blow away in the slightest wind, but to the external observer, to the person coming in from the outside to see how they are made, they become little works of art, each and every one of them, almost magically turned out by insanely dexterous hands in speeds that almost defy imagination.  But I’m running ahead of myself - let me start from the beginning.

Incense stick production is, in a very real way, a seasonal production   in Vietnam, with production ramping up between the months of November until middle of January as the world prepares for the Buddhist calendar New Year celebrations (Tet in Vietnam, Chinese New Year etc) in the beginning of February.  The literally hundreds of small factories, some no more than the members of just one family, will produce, in a little over 2 months, billions upon billions of incense sticks, starting from the selection of the right types of bamboo sticks all the way to the addition of the burning paste and the packaging.  Each stick takes between 1 and 2 days from ingredients to the final product and during the high season, entire villages, sometimes including relatives from more distant areas all over Vietnam, will often work 12-15 hours a day doing just this.

The process itself is, surprisingly, a lot more complicated than one may think - certainly a lot more than the respect the final product commands.  First there is the burning paste.  Each family has its own recipe which is a closely guarded secret - no matter how much I tried, it was impossible to find anyone willing to even consider showing us the mixing process, even if there was no way whatsoever to actually capture and remember what was happening.  Raw materials are delivered in their original form - roots, dried flowers etc. - in sacks and inspected by the head of the family before being added to the mix. Even though it starts its life as a dry powder, once oil is added it becomes a very thick paste, not unlike marzipan and is stored in thick clumps covered by an oily cloth.  Some of the more well-to-do families have smaller or larger mixing machines but otherwise it is mostly done by hand.

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At the same time, at other parts of the village, the bamboo sticks are being prepared.  From thick bamboo, first manually and then through a machine, straw sticks start big and slowly, through the process, become thinner and thinner until they resemble the sticks we all know.  From all the stages in the production, this is - to my mind - by far the most repetitive and, frankly, wasteful: sticks start at about 2-3cm wide and in pretty much every state of straight.  They are then sliced in half, again and again, until they’re about 1cm in width, at which stage they are fed, repeatedly, into a grinding/smoothing machine which sands away imperfections until each becomes a straight and almost identical 2mm round sticks of approximately 40-50cm height.  Now, these machines are not intelligent electronic pieces of equipment, constantly monitoring dimensions etc. - they are the absolute basic machines and approximately 5-10 every 100 come out with imperfections or are otherwise not fit for purpose.

The sticks are bundled tightly together and sent for quality control - this is where people, much like you and me, using a very visually beautiful and almost dance-like method, manually remove the unacceptable ones from the lot.  Any stick not passing muster is instantly discarded.  From all the production stages, this is the more hypnotising to watch as massive bunches are being twirled about until some sticks inevitably fall out - interestingly enough, there is a second level of quality control to catch those which may have escaped the first time, this one even more detailed and usually removes even more sticks than the first pass.  The approved sticks are tied together and sent for dyeing.

This is what most people think when they think incenses - the large red, purple or even multicoloured “plumes” of  sticks drying in the sun in massive fields! It is a beautiful sight but also a slightly misleading one.  You see, I always thought that the coloured plumes you see are the actual sticks, with their burning paste, but they’re not.  Sticks are dyed in bundles by being dipped, repeatedly, into coloured dyes, removed, dried and then redid until the right shade of the desired colour is achieved.  What is funny is that the colours we see are the bottom parts of the sticks, the ones not eventually covered by paste and the colour actually serves as a guide for the addition of paste later on in the process!  Once sticks are  dyed to the desired colour, they are shipped off for the paste to be added.

Traditionally, paste was added manually, by women using rolling motions, each time taking a bit more paste and adding it to a stick and so on and so on.  These days with demand being what it is, most of this is done by machines which can add paste to 2-3 sticks a second, literally going through thousands over the source of an hour.  The machines are quite ingenious - to the honest - and are fun to watch, but at the same time, they also waste 5-10 sticks out of 100 - those are also discarded.  Once a bunch has been prepared, they are laid out to dry (usually for no more than 1/2 day) before being packaged and prepared for shipping to the stores.

There is one exception to the above: the long-burning circular ones - those take longer but are even more magical to see.  As there are no machines capable of automatically putting paste in perfect circles, these are all done manually.  A machine takes the paste and compresses it, shooting it out in 2-3mm thick strings, some more than 10-20m.  These are then taken by men (usually) who, using simple templates on a plain wooden board and nothing but their dexterity and fingers, create concentric circles in the rate of 1 every 4-5’’ (yes, that’s seconds).  Once a board is filled, it is taken to dry in the sun.  The dance of the paste strings as it literally flies through their fingers is magical - like an etherial dance manipulated invisibly by calloused fingers.

I cannot write enough about how beautiful the whole process is from start to finish - yes, it’s filled with (saw)dust (your camera will be absolutely covered in it both during the sanding as well as in the paste-mixing stages) and yes, it does involve a lot of standing under the burning sun following the women who lay out, either the finished sticks or the base ones, to dry (even though, visually, this is by far the most rewarding!), but what makes it, for me, beautiful is the people - working in what is, quite likely, not the best of conditions, they always talk to each other, always laughing (mostly at you, the hapless observer, but still) and always happy to share a joke (again, quite likely at your expense) and tease each other.  In all my time among them I don’t think I came across one of them who was either angry or negatively disposed to the observer.  This is, I believe, the 4th or 5th such experience I’ve had only recently where the nicest, most communal and happiest working environments are often found in the most unlikely of places - makes one wonder, no?