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[Photos] From Bamboo to Altar: The Life of an Incense Stick in Vietnam

Vietnamese see the process of burning incense as a sacred ritual said to provide a bridge between the visible life of human beings and the spiritual world of gods.

No matter the belief system, burning incense is the first thing to do to establish an environment conducive to spiritual elevation while attracting the attention of gods or spirits. This traditional practice is done at home on the ancestors' altar, or at a pagoda. It is part of daily life for many and, perhaps, part of the country's cultural identity.

The whole process of incense production, from chopping bamboo rods into small pieces to the final packaging, is more complicated than one may think. People used to buy bamboo trees and soak them in water for a few months before chopping them into small pieces to make incense sticks. Nowadays, this work is done by machine, and the sticks are sent to quality control, where unacceptable sticks will then be manually removed.

At the same time, this burning paste is made elsewhere. Each factory has their own secret recipe to give it a unique smell. The dry powder is mixed with roots, dried flowers and water to become a thick paste. This burning paste used to be added manually, but now machines can add paste to two or three sticks a second.

Sticks are then dyed in bundles by being dipped, repeatedly, into colorful dyes until the right shade of the desired color is achieved. The color serves as a reminder to add the burning paste later on.

The incense sticks are laid out to dry. This step is repeated numerous times throughout the whole process: after being dyed and again once the burning paste is added. The incense sticks are finally stacked up by piles of 1,000, with each package going for VND30,000.

According to tradition, one should always light and burn an odd number of incense sticks. Each number has its own meaning and symbolic value.

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