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!