Phja Thap hamlet at the foot of Ta Hung mountain is famous for its agarwood incense sticks and provides an interesting stop-over on atour of the northern border province of Cao Bang.

On sunny days, every corner of Phja Thap bears the fragrance of agarwood. When their farm work is done, everyone young or old gets busy making incense sticks. The craft has been maintained by the Nung An for hundreds of years.

Nong Van Lap and his family begin their day at the break of dawn.

“First we lay out “bầu hắt” leaves in the sun. It’s a kind of natural gluey leaf with an aromatic smell. In the past, we picked the leaves in the forest. Now we grow this kind of tree in our garden,” he said.

For hundreds of years, the Nung An have followed atraditional method of making incense sticks from tree bark, resinous leaves, and the sawdust of pine and agarwood trees. They use no artificial chemicals.

Making incense is not arduous work but it involves a number of steps, each one done by hand. First a bamboo tree is cut into pieces about 40 cm long and split into thin sticks.

Powdered “bau hat” leaves and well-milled sawdust from tree bark are mixed to create a gluey substance which is then rolled around two thirds of each bamboo stick. After the stems are dyed red or yellow, the sticks are tied into big bundles and dried in the sun.

Phja Thap incense sticks have a wonderful natural aroma. They burn evenly and can be kept for a long time. 100% of the households in Phja Thap make incense sticks.

“We wake up at 5 a.m. in the winter and 4 a.m. in the summer to make incense sticks. On rainy days we dry old sticks on a woodstove,” said villager Hoang Van Tinh.

On sunny days, the bunches of incense sticks being dried in the fields look like huge flowers.

Hoang Ngoc Kim, Secretary of Phja Thap hamlet’s Party unit, said the craft generates stable incomes for the villagers.

“Making incense sticks is more profitable than doing farm work. We have three incense seasons a year. Each season, a household can earn about US$860,” he said.

Making incense sticks generates income for Phja Thap while helping to preserve an important cultural tradition of the Nung An people.