Flying Over Vietnam's Seas of Incense
Nov 09, 2022
Vietnam's incense fields are more than pretty photographic backdrops, they are part of an important industry and ancient spiritual practice.
Aerial view of incense workers sits surrounded by thousands of incense sticks, where the sticks have been traditionally made for hundreds of years in Quang Phu Cau, Hanoi, Vietnam.© Amazing Aerial Agency / Azim Khan Ronnie
By Gaia Zol
When Dhaka-based photographer Azim Khan Ronnie was invited to Vietnam by a fellow travel photographer, he had one destination in mind: one of the country’s famous incense villages. “I love to shoot colors, and it was my dream to shoot incense photography for a long, long time,” Khan says.
Incense is an important industry in Vietnam, not just economically, but also spiritually. Enter one of the country’s many Buddhist temples, and you will see the incense sticks, colorful and intense. Most of the incense comes from the region around Hanoi, in the tropical south of Vietnam.
The incense heritage still survives, an ancient tradition living and breathing in modernity. Vietnamese families have been carrying out this custom for centuries, lighting the incense sticks on the altars of the pagodas, especially during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. A natural process made of 100 percent natural materials, incense sticks are sustainable and unique.
The production process for incense hasn’t changed much. Bamboo, which is omnipresent in Vietnam, is the main component in incense sticks.
The community comes together during the incense production process. The women cut it and the men lay out on the field. Each bamboo branch is trimmed, soaked, and peeled. Then, workers split it into tiny parts. Clean and dusted, the sticks are laid out to dry. Next, the locals paint the bases red, yellow, and or blue with the incense paste, which is made of different flowers or roots and provides the fragrance. One final level of coating and another day of dry-out and the incense is ready.
The process is still mostly done by hand. It is time-consuming and often messier than the evenly patterned process depicted in the photos above. To get his photos, Azim Khan Ronnie actually asked the women working in the incense fields to arrange the incense sticks in patterns instead of scattered randomly around the field. “I don’t like asking people to pose. I always try to shoot original moments, that’s why I was waiting for the perfect moment,” he explains. “So when I saw they were working in their own way, I made small adjustments to capture these beautiful shots.” What matters is that the authentic, beautiful spirit of incense production was conveyed.
Communication barriers were overcome with a friendly smile, waves, and assistance from Azim’s Vietnamese-speaking friends. Plus, Azim adds, “the women are used to posing for photos with requests.”
Incense villages like Quang Phu Cau are a popular tourist destination as visitors want to participate in the tradition and respectfully take pictures of the colorful rows of sticks. Visits are even more intense leading up to Tet, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, as villagers put in extra work to meet demands for incense.
While foreigners don’t impact the incense culture, as incense tourism is off the radar for most foreign visitors except for photographers such as Azim Khan Ronnie, domestic arrivals do. Even during the pandemic year of 2020, Vietnam recorded over 113 million domestic tourists, many of which visit incense villages. These tourists fill the villages, often disrupting their calm and without regard for the communities.
“Inbound tourism nearly has no impact on the incense traditions of Vietnam,” said local tour guide Phạm Hải Long, “however, domestic tourism made a big impact on it. Spiritual and culture tours are popular in the country.”
The popularity of spiritual tourism is leading some tourism operators to make some unethical decisions such as planting new trees to produce agarwood, a fragrant and dark wood. Agarwood grows over hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years and it’s one of the most exclusive types of incense due to its rarity. Due to overconsumption, some varieties are believed to be extinct in the wild. However, now people are planting agarwood plantations just for exploitation during spiritual tours.
Despite the beauty of its scent and its colorful production process, incense is more than a decoration. In Vietnamese Buddhism, incense is considered the bridge between the two worlds. Incense villages, like the one in Quang Phu Cau, are not only filled with colors and love, but are important production centers of this sacred tradition. To retain its importance as a spiritual practice, not just a tourist attraction, incense production will need the respect of locals and tourists alike.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Duras
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