Burning incense is part of Vietnamese culture and beliefs. In today’s edition of Vietnam in close up, we’ll take you on a tour to the Xa Kieu traditional craft village to find out how incense sticks are made.

Located about 42 km to the east of Hanoi, Xa Kieu village in Ung Hoa district is famous for incense. 

No one knows exactly when the craft began but elderly people in the village said that when they were only about 6-7 years old, they saw their parents chopping bamboo rods to make incense sticks. 

80-year-old Tran Thi Tho in Xa Kieu said “Making incense in our village has been a generation – to – generation craft. It requires lots of steps to make. From the last 10 years, we have had machines. Before that, each step was done by hand”.

The incense of Xa Kieu has a unique scent because the raw materials to make the incense are selected carefully by the local people, without the addition of any chemicals. 

Incense cones are made from a combination of burnt forest trees, resin of Canarium trees and coal powder. The specific ratio of each ingredient in the cone mixture is a secret.  

After mixing the ingredients, villagers have to grind the mixture and add some water. The mixture is then ground again. Apart from incense, the villagers also make sandalwood incense cones. 

Incense maker Nguyen Thi Chien said “We have 4 types of incense : small yellow incense, small black incense, long yellow incense, long black incense, and 2 types of sandalwood incense cones: yellow and black ones. Normally, we buy incense sticks then dye them in artificial coloring. Then they are swept with incense cones through a machine. Before being packaged, incense sticks must be dried for two days”.

Making incense is an efficient process in which no materials are wasted. Nguyen Van Trung said “I’m collecting incense sticks from the rubbing machine and it takes 4 hours to finish one batch. Sometimes, I have to mix the sticks to ensure that they are all rubbed. We put pulpstone into it so that the sticks are smooth and shiny. Dust and bamboo shell from incense sticks will be sold to other companies to make firewood or rattan items”.

Nowadays, most of the steps are performed by machines. However, some villagers remain faithful to the manual techniques. 

Nguyen Thi Ngoc said “Firstly we buy bunches of bamboo trees then soak them in the lake for 1-2 months. After that, we pick them up and chop them into smaller pieces. We then dry them under the sun for 1-2 hours. Then we saw them into sizes of 33, 35, 37 and 43 cm”.
Packaging is the final stage in making incense. 
Nguyen Thi Chien said “First, I collect 100 sticks of incense then paste two paper belts to the beginning  and end of the patch. Then I wrap them in cellophane. I had put the brand name on the cellophane earlier and then make sure the incense is kept neatly. I roll the patch and then use a chopstick to put through fire to heat the wrapping and  make sure it’s closed tight”. 

Recently, Xa Kieu villagers have had a chance to showcase their products at the Vietnam Traditional Craft Village Tourism Festival 2016. 

Ms Nguyen Thi Hang, from Hanoi was among the festival goers. She said “Incense is an indispensable item on my family’s ancestral altar. I always buy flowers and fruits and burn incense on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month to show my respect to the ancestors. I heard that in Xa Kieu village, they have black incense which has a unique scent so I’ve just bought one patch”.

To mark Hanoi’s Millennial Anniversary, Xa Kieu village contributed 3 incense towers standing 2-meters-high, which burned for 40 hours. 

Apart from the spiritual significance, burning incense in the house can also help to reduce stress, repel insects, and damp. 

Xa Kieu incense, which is extracted from natural ingredients, won’t sting the eyes while being burnt.

The craft provides a decent income for Xa Kieu’s villagers, who are kept busy from early morning until late afternoon. From November through March is the best season for selling incense. 

Xa Kieu’s products are also shipped to nearby provinces such as Thanh Hoa, Nam Dinh, Hai Duong and many southern provinces.