Tales of incense and pagodas.


I may have incensed the ancestors.  Very much unwittingly, I should add.

It happened quite some time ago, one early morning, when I crossed the court yard in the language centre where I work.  Captivated by the seductive waft of incense caught in a breeze, and being particularly nosy by nature, I could not resist taking a closer peek at a table laden with the telltale signs of offerings to the beyond.


Of course, I was not totally oblivious to the piety of it all, but since we had not received any warning about dress code and various other observances during such rituals, I quite happily flaunted my short shorts and strappy t-shirt in front of the table.  Don’t worry, I have the legs and body to match!  And as there were no morning classes, surely my off-duty attire in a tropical climate should not have caused any offence.

Maybe not to the souls of the living, but on that day, they were of lesser importance than the souls of the departed hovering above and keeping a close eye on the scene below…  Still, without even a hint or explanation about the impending event, surely some blame for my lapse of etiquette should rest on the shoulders of those in the know.  A little heads-up anyone??  I would have walked behind the table shrouded in long pants and long-sleeved shirt, even covered my head if necessary, and left the ancestors to their ethereal musings and mumblings…  Less of a chance to incur their wrath and jinx the good fortunes and luck of the centre for the coming year.

In the office, my questions about the goings-on were met with stony silence, and hushed tones suggested that it was best to leave things unsaid.  You could never be sure who might be listening in.  Really?  Not being that hot on the ancestor philosophy, I definitely did not sense the presence of specters.  It could have been my lack of a certain susceptibility to non-matter.   And taking photographs??  A definite no-no, only by the time anyone had the courtesy to spell this out to me, I had long since taken the snapshots I wanted.


We were eventually put in the picture about the relevance of the auspicious occasion, but only after the proceedings were completed and we were invited to the breakfast feast.  The ritual, part of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, is carried out at each and every household or business on a secret day to be decided by the monks of a nearby pagoda.   Best to keep ancestors on your side by offering food, incense and prayers.  Whereas the owner of the centre was made aware of the date in advance, staff were alerted at the last minute and, only those Vietnamese staff in the know would have understood what was happening…

Although Vietnam is officially an atheist state, most people are affiliated to one or other religion, as well as – equally and firmly – adhering to the ancient traditions and customs of ancestor worship.  Not a religion or belief, it represents the gratitude of the descendants to the ancestors.  The tradition is rooted in the conviction that all human beings consist of two parts: body and mind.  Upon death, the body is buried but the spirit, who continues to live with the families, must be taken care of and placated to keep potential future mishaps at bay.  On the anniversary of a death, a feast is laid on for relatives, neighbours and friends to celebrate the passing of someone from the precarious life after birth to the eternal life after death.

To ensure the ancestors’ needs in the hereafter are fully met, the families build an ancestral altar, either inside their home or sometimes in a small shrine flanking the house.   Food, water and flowers are placed on the altar and, on auspicious days, paper versions of worldly essentials, such as shoes, hats, etc are presented, and subsequently set aflame…  Probably earthly media may be a tad more convenient to the ancestors in the guise of a vapour.


Happy tidings call for generous offerings to the ancestors, whereas sad events are marked by prayers and the burning of incense sticks.   Equally, pleas for help from the forebears in troubled times may be more forthcoming when transported with the sweet perfume of burning incense.  And judging by the ubiquitousness of ash covered incense sticks in front of shrines, a fair few requests seem to be heading in their direction…


The Vietnamese landscape is dotted with temples, pagodas and shrines and many have become famous landmarks and tourist attractions.  To the uninitiated, pagodas and temples with their unmistakable tiered structures and arched entrances, look very much alike.  Only a closer inspection of the items displayed inside the complex will shed light on which one it is.  Whereas pagodas are linked to Buddhism and are filled with huge, towering statues of various aspects of the Buddha, temples are built to pay respect to important people who are held in high regard.  But whichever one you visit, you can be sure to be greeted by the unmistakable waft of incense..

Thien An Pagoda, Quang Ngai



Marble Mountain, DaNang


Linh Ung Pagoda & Giant Lady Buddha, DaNang



Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue


Inside a local pagoda, Tu Nghia near Quang Ngai





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