Tag Archives: Tet

Fragrant business

Incense dries on a village road

Doc La is one of the many craft villages in Vietnam where the entire village specialises in a particular product. There are, for example, silk villages, bronze villages, ceramic villages, woodworking villages, conical hat villages, rice-noodle villages and lacquer villages. Doc La’s craft is incense.
 
I went to Doc La on an excursion with Friends of Vietnam Heritage, a not-for-profit educational group of foreign and Vietnamese volunteers n Hanoi who aim to preserve and advance Vietnamese heritage and culture. 
 
I urge anyone visiting or living in Hanoi to get on their mailing list, as their walks, lectures, excusions and film screenings give a wealth of insights into Vietnamese life and culture. Their website is http://fvheritage.org/
 
In Doc La there are signs – and smells – of its main industry everywhere. Racks of incense sticks fill yards and line roads, as do long rows of bunches of incense sticks, fanned out like flowers in a vase. We mostly saw the long sticks of incense seen everywhere in pagodas and temples in Vietnam.

We also saw incense coils drying on racks in one front yard. These are another common sight in pagodas, suspended from the ceiling above worshippers’ heads.

The busiest time of year in in Doc La is the weeks before, during and after the Tet lunar new year celebrations, according to the VnnNews.net website (www.vnnnews.net), which carries an article about the village. At that time many people in this country of almost 90 million make an extra effort to pray to ancestors and other spirits – and that’s a lot of incense.

Incense powder in a bucket and sticks ready for coating

We visited three family businesses. At the first business the incense is applied to the sticks by hand. A woman, squatting on the floor, as do many workers in Vietnam, dipped a handful of sticks in a pot of glue and then in a pile incense powder, then shook off the powder before epeating the process two more times, as a fine mist of incense filled the air. Her only protection from this was a cotton scarf.

At the second workshop the procedure was mechanised but still labour-intensive. A worker fed the wooden sticks one by one into a machine that forced them through a cylinder filled with incense that had the consistency of dough. The sticks shot out the other side, coated and ready for drying.

Coating sticks by machine

In the front room of a third house we visited, the owner carefully printed yellow and red cellophane covers for packs of incense, one colour at a time, on a simple silk-screen printing press.

On the way back to the bus some of us bought packs of incense from one local producer for 8000 dong a pack. I discovered during the journey back to Hanoi that we had paid a heftier “foreigner’s tax” than usual: a Vietnamese friend on the same excursion told me he had helped some of our fellow day-trippers to buy incense for just 2000 dong a pack. Still, even 8000 dong is only 45 cents.

 

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9am wedding

Brides next to Lake Hoan Kiem in Hanoi get ready for their photos
Brides to be get ready for their wedding photos

This morning I left my home at quarter to nine to meet the motorbike driver who takes me to work, and outside the front door of my building walked straight into a wedding party.

It was being held in a long narrow marquee erected in the laneway outside my building. The lane was only slightly wider than the marquee, leaving just enough room for me to walk through. At the far end of the marquee I inadvertently got caught up in a wedding photo (I’ll be the Tay (westerner) scurrying through the guests at the far left of the shot), after which I weaved my way among a group of women wearing beautiful scarlet ao dai, before finding my motorbike driver.

Ao dai are the traditional costumes consisting of long, tight-fitting silk tunics worn over loose trousers that Vietnamese women don for special occasions. I could not see the bride in the throng of guests as I departed by motorbike, but she was actually more likely to be wearing a flounced western wedding dress than an elegant ao dai, judging by the many wedding photos I have seen taken at beauty spots around town.

Most weekends I see a few couples having their wedding photos taken, and sometimes several in the same spot. The photos are not taken on the day of the wedding, but weeks, if not months ahead, so that they can be displayed on the big day. My favourite sight from one of these photo shoots was a bored-looking groom-to-be trailing his fiancée as he carried her high-heeled shoes.

A quarter to nine on a weekday morning might seem a strange time for a wedding party, but I was told by a Vietnamese work colleague that both the date, and the time of day, of the wedding are carefully chosen by the couple and their families after consulting a fortune teller. Believing in supernatural forces is common in Vietnam, and those forces are held to affect people’s lives in many ways.

This morning may also have been a particularly auspicious time for a wedding as it immediately followed the 15th day of the first lunar month of the lunar year (the Tet new year festival falls on the first day of that month).

My colleague told me that the 15th day after new year is a very important time for the worship of ancestors, with people holding big family dinners and visiting pagodas to pray, leave offerings and ask deceased parents and grandparents for help in this world.

Last night I also saw people burning paper money on the street, to send to their ancestors – another example of the pervasive beliefs in a spiritual world, and in its everyday links to the material world.

 
 
 

 

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