Incense offering in Vietnam

In Vietnam, you’d better like the smell of incense burning because you’re going to find it a lot, in pagodas, in shops, in private houses and even on the streets.

It is hard to pinpoint a particular time when such practice exactly started in Vietnam. It probably originates from the Chinese colonization. The ritual of burning incense in religious ceremonies dates back from very old times:  depictions of burning incense could be found in tombs and temples of Ancient Egypt!

In Vietnamese, incense is “hương” in the North and “nhang” in the South.

For Vietnamese, an incense stick is not a simple object, it is a sacred element, which is part of their daily spiritual life and of their relation to the world. We can even say that it is part of the Vietnamese cultural identity.

The smoke of the incense sticks is considered as a sacred bridge between the visible life of human beings and the spiritual life of earth, heaven and gods. It helps connecting the world of the living and the one of the deceased (or spirits).

That is why incense offering is so important as a ritual during the traditional Buddhist festivals as well as in the worship of ancestors in each Vietnamese family.

At home or in the pagodas, incense offering especially takes place on the most important days of the lunar calendar (1st and 15th day of each month), as well as on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or when a baby is born. And of course for traditional TET, the lunar New Year.

When one burns an incense stick, his prayers are passed on to the deities and to the spirits of their ancestors.

In Vietnam, you can find many types of incense: the most common is the small sticks of bamboo covered with wood powder or the conical spirals that hang form the ceiling in the pagodas. Sometimes, they are made of aromatic wood.

Some facts to know about burning incense tradition in Vietnam:

According to tradition, one should always light and burn an odd number of incense sticks (1,3,5, 7 or 9). Each and every of those number has its own meaning and symbolic value. They all represent prosperity and development. Nobody burns only 1 stick; 3 is actually a minimum. One must hold the sticks with both hands and put them respectfully on the altar, showing humility and concentration. Incense offering should be accompanied with prayers. Nowadays even in modern Vietnam, this ritual is still taken very seriously by everybody.

 For Buddhism, burning incense is one of the six offerings together with fresh flowers, candles or oil lamps, tea, fruit and food.

You can buy some incense sticks in every market and in the pagodas.

If you want to be impressed and amazed by the huge hanging spiral incense cones hanging from the ceilings in some pagodas, you should join our interactive walking adventure. It will lead you to some of those temples!

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Of Kite flying in Cambodia : The legend of Th’nuhn Chhey

«Thnuhn Chhey, of the existence of Kites in China, and of Chinese in Cambodia»

… Once upon a time…, there was a poor – a bit cheesy – peasant by the name of Chhey – which means “Victory” – who was forced to become a servant of a rich Lord. Although a kind of ‘dopey’ of his state, it wasn’t devoid of common sense and after many adventures during all his years at the service of his rich Lord, he found himself in a “sampan” boat in the direction of the Middle Kingdom (Cathay/China). And there, for some small misconduct in a society that is being foreign to him, the poor Chhey found himself in the jails of the Emperor of China.

To get rid of his boredom, he asked his guards a little piece of rattan and bamboo, paper and some fine thread to make a kite, and so homesick he was of his native country, that took him to the depths of his soul… The peculiarity of the Khmer kite is the addition of a small bamboo carved device called “Aek” so that when the wind blows through, it can emit a melodious or gloomy sound!

By a moonless night and when the North wind blows through his cold prison cell and bars, Chhey was flying his kite. In the dark of the night, the small instrument “Aèk” produced long and dreary groans – even worse than a night bird – that dread awoke the Emperor of China and the entire Court. The Emperor immediately requested his best astrologers who predicted that the worst misfortunes will befall on the Middle Kingdom “if the Sage of the Khmer country who is imprisoned in the jails is not released within the hour!”… Chhey was brought before the Emperor who – seeing him so humbly prostrating to the ground before Him – ordered to cover Chhey with gold and silver coins until his entire body disappears under the pile.

Chhey of course, took the opportunity to raise to the maximum his posterior to accumulate as much as possible the coins and jewelry! The ceremony ended, the Emperor asked the Chhey’s ‘secret’ who then unveiled the secret of the making of Khmer kites to the Emperor of China, and offered the most melodious “Kh’laèng Aèk” to the Emperor. Then, the Emperor of China had Chhey embark in his most richly decorated sampans and Chhey returned to the Khmer country accompanied by dignitaries from the Middle Kingdom and Chinese merchants, filled with glory and fortune. He lived a long life and had many children!

It is since that day that kites exist in China and that there are Chinese people in the Khmer Kingdom!

Every year, in the month of “kaddoeuk” that often falls in November according to the lunar calendar, young Cambodian children, taking advantage of the cool Northern wind of the Winter Monsoon that blows from China, are flying kites, and even in the most remote villages of the Kingdom, a competition of Kh’laeng Aek (kite) is organized and rewards the best decorated Kh’laeng Aek that produces the most melodious sounds!

If you are interested in learning more about Khmer culture & traditions, join our interactive mystery city tour in Phnom Penh.

© Vireak HOEUNG

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Khmer street food

Phnom Penh is a great city to explore for its temples (wats), its historic district, its remaining beautiful vestiges, its markets and its new trendy neighbourhoods. But let us remind you that another essential part of visiting the Cambodian capital is to try its delicious local street food!

Colorful and tasty, Khmer street food is a great experience for the eyes and for the palate. Each vendor is usually specialized in some certain type of dish.

Most of the dishes can be eaten at any time of the day. Some like the “Nohm Ornsorm Chhruk” (or Steamed Pork Sticky rice) is very popular on special occasions such as traditional ceremonies, weddings or for the Khmer New Year. The Hollow donut (“Nohm Paoung”) is usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack in the afternoon .

Best thing to do for visitors is to wander along the streets in Phnom Penh, especially around the markets and to stop and try some street food whenever the color or the smell attracts you. You will not regret the experience!

If you want to explore Phnom Penh off the beaten-tracks, do not miss our interactive tour.

  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
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Cholon & its origins (Vietnam)

Located west of the city center, Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City’s historic Chinatown.

It is quite a big area as it includes District 5, District 6 and a part of District 10 and District 11.

Here is a bit of history to remind us how Cholon was born. The first Chinese settlement established there in the second half of the 17th century, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, by the people who remained loyal to the fallen emperor and exiled to Vietnam.

Then, later during the 18th century, a second wave of Chinese immigration arrived to Cholon, as a consequence of the demographic pressure in China. The communities organized themselves in “bangs” or “community groups”, based on their respective dialects and regions of origin.

In the late 18th century, the Chinese settlement was destroyed when the Tay Son rebel army captured the city of Gia Dinh (actual Saigon). The survivors had to rebuild the town and took this opportunity to improve the waterway system by building high embankments and wharves along the river. The settlement then took the name of “Tai Ngon” (embankment).

It grew and became a bustling center of commerce. Chinese merchants started to trade a larger variety of goods such as building materials, opium, alcohol, tobacco.

However, in the 1820’s, citizens of Chinese origins saw their privileges abolished by emperor Minh Quang who distrusted the Chinese.

In 1859, the French invaded Vietnam and started naming “Saigon” the administrative center located in today’s District 1, while the Chinese settlement became known as “Cho Lon”, literally meaning “Big market”.

The Chinese community sought the French’s protection and, thanks to their support, could resume trading as they did before Minh Quang’s reign.

In the 1930’s Cholon was a real “suburb” of Saigon and they started to merge together.

Cholon got pretty much destroyed during the American War. However it has kept its reputation of frantic trading hub and has become one of the largest Chinese communities outside China. It is also a city within the city, with its own culture, customs and beliefs.

Nowadays, many of Cholon’s historic shopfronts are progressively disappearing under advertising hoardings or new building constructions. However, you can still recall the old Chinese city when you have a stroll along the traditional herb shops on the streets Lương Như Hộc and Triệu Quang Phục or if you go and visit the beautiful ancient pagodas & temples of the neighborhood: Bà Thiên Hậu temple, Tue Thanh Assembly hall, Ha Chuong pagoda and Quan Âm pagoda just to name a few of them…

Cholon is still a fascinating area to visit to get out of the neat environment of District 1.

To dive into Cholon’s typical atmosphere and hidden alleyways in an innovative way, do not miss our interactive walking tour in District 5! 

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Pchum Bèn Festival in Cambodia

Have you ever heard about Pchum Bèn festival?

It is one of the main two very important Buddhist Festivals in Cambodia – besides Khmer New Year -, and is also known as Ancestors’ Festival.

The ceremony is held for 15 days starting from the first until the fifteenth of Khmer Lunar month calendar called “Pheaktrobot” (between September and October in our Western calendar).

This year, the first day of the festival fell on September 14th (Bèn 1) and the most important days will be September 27, 28 and 29 (also known as “Pchum Bèn / the “Reunion of All Bèn”),ending the celebration and the Fortnight of Ancestors.

A bit similar to All Souls’ Day in Anglo-Saxon countries or to “La Toussaint” in France, Pchum Bèn is a time of the year when Khmer people remember, commemorate and “feed” their deceased ancestors.

Based on local belief, people are being reincarnated at death. Some families do not properly take care of their deceased parents and the souls of those will no rest in peace “and keep wandering in space and time”; on the contrary, during Pchum Bèn festival, those unhappy souls will come back and wander around in pain, searching for food, especially next to their homes. They are considered as ”hungry ghosts or spirits”. That is why during the first 14 days of the festival, families go to the neighboring pagodas to make different types of offerings to the monks, so this will supposedly appease the “lost souls” which will stop bother their living relatives, as they are supposed to give alms to – if not one -, but to seven wats in remembrance of their lost ancestors over seven generations.

While the word “Pchum” means in Khmer “to gather together”, the word “Bèn” means “to collect” and it also mean “to take a portion” of cooked rice or meat. So you have it all in the name of the festival!

During Pchum Bèn, pagodas are usually crowded with people coming to give offerings to the monks, who help pass them to their deceased relatives. Offerings are various: food (especially “bay ben “or sticky rice balls), flowers, money, clothes, and other basic necessities for the monks and community at the wat to sustain during the rainy season where monks are not supposed to leave the premises of the pagoda.

It is a great opportunity for travelers to visit pagodas at that time of the year to feel the very special atmosphere of that festival.

If you want to explore Phnom Penh in a different way, join our interactive walking tour.

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