The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division , at sacred-texts.com
Vietnam is a land of beauty and charm in spite of its horrors, uncertainty of life and the frequency of sudden violent death due to war. Added to a culture so different than normal for most Americans is the odor of Nuoc-mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) and the wispy smoke of joss sticks and incense burners, the latter two found on family altars, spirit houses, and temple courtyards and before the figures of Buddha which abound in great numbers.
Not all joss sticks are fragrant as some are primarily for smoke and have only the faintest odor. However, the more favored joss sticks are the ones with incense which serves both as a means of veneration and as a practical deodorizer.
Few homes in Vietnam are without a joss stick to be utilized for some reason, and in some seasons the burning of joss sticks seems to create distinct fire hazards. When it is remembered that joss sticks are all handmade, it does not take long to realize that this is quite an industry. Basically the joss stick is made with a thin bamboo stick, which is painted red, Part of the stick is rolled in a putty-like substance-the exact formulae are guarded by their owners.
The putty-like substance is composed of the sawdust of such materials as sandalwood and other fragrant plants mixed with water or another evaporating liquid. Normally at least three different kinds of sawdust are mixed for the best result. The ideal woods for this sawdust come from the mountain forests and from Laos. Once the sticky brown mixture is placed on ⅓ or more of the painted bamboo stick, it is placed in the drying racks in the sun. It takes about two days of sunshine to dry the mixture satisfactorily, and then these are brought indoors and placed so that several additional days of drying time is allowed. This helps to insure that all moisture has evaporated and makes a firmer better product.
Once completed, the joss sticks may be placed into packages along with a couple of candles for the altar, or placed loosely in larger boxes for wholesale or retail distribution. Most of the work is done by girls, who, with training and practice, can make about three thousand joss sticks a day. It is possible for a hard worker to earn perhaps the equal of a dollar for a full day's labor.
Joss sticks are very reasonably priced, and it is good for the common people that this is so, for few acts of devotion could be complete without the lighting of joss sticks. These may be placed in sand-filled containers either in the temple courtyard or in racks located in front or on top of an altar. Sometimes after burning joss sticks are placed in front of a Buddha statue, the ascending smoke from the burning joss stick is thought by some to have beneficial aid in pleasing that power to whom worship is made, or prayers offered.
It is possible to purchase spiral or circular joss sticks which will burn as long as one to three months with incense and smoke being cast off night and day. Quite often walls, the ceiling and sometimes the figures of devotion or veneration are smoked or darkened. Where the buildings do not have adequate ventilation, the spaces above the doorway level may be perpetually gray with smoke. The overwhelming fragrance of the burning joss sticks may also cloak any unpleasant odors that might detract the worshipper from his devotion, or which could offend the one to whom petitions are being made.
While the Chinese families of Southeast Asia use many joss sticks, it is doubtful if they use more than the Vietnamese families who may combine animism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism and sometimes even parts of the Christian acts of worship. To so many of these folk, it would be more unwise to forget, ignore or omit the acts of worship where the joss sticks are a basic element, than it would be to step in front of a speeding truck. It might miss you, but the angered "spirits" would not!