The gesture of offering incense is omnipresent throughout Asia, it seems. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India—anyone who’s Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Shinto—even some types of Christian—knows what it means to offer incense. “In North America, not so much,” as I would tell everyone in Da Nang. In the West, most people treat incense as a way to make your house smell good, not as an object of religious practice.
I spent my time during my last trip to Vietnam trying to discern how to be a good son-in-law. Eventually, I figured out a few things that seemed to be key: preparing rice at lunch, taking out the garbage, fetching things from nearby shops, and regularly offering incense at the family shrine. If you remember my post about Vietnamese funeral customs, you’ll recall that when someone dies in Vietnam, a shrine is erected as a memorial, and that a central element of that shrine is a pot of sand used to plant sticks of incense as offerings, generally placed in front of a photo of the deceased. This shrine is an active centre of worship for (at least) the 100 days following their passing. “Worship?” I hear you ask. Yes, worship, or at least that’s how they refer to it—the act of paying one’s respects by offering incense. Vietnamese, even Baha’is, tend to draw a line between this act of “worship” and the personal prayers one might say before bed, or in times of trouble, and so on. Paying one’s respects at the family shrine is one of the most fundamental acts of Vietnamese spiritual life, and this applies irrespective of “membership” in one religious community or another; it is a tradition that helps to define what it means to be Vietnamese, and acts as a base for the family and society. Without understanding it, you cannot understand Vietnam.