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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

Fragrant Incense of Aloes Wood

Someone has remarked that Vietnam is characterized by two odors-that of Nuoc-mam (fish sauce) and that of incense. The Vietnamese reaction is that Nuoc-mam represents the material life whereas incense from the places of worship symbolize the spiritual life of Vietnam.

The incense trees and cinnamon which grow in the forests of Vietnam have long been known and utilized. The tribal people gather cinnamon bark and trade these to the lowland Vietnamese for essential supplies. They also gather the incense wood for a similar reason as the tribespeople do not seem to use incense for worship as do the lowland worshippers.

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Aloes wood-used as incense-belongs to the Thy-melaeceae family of trees. The Chinese, French, Cambodians, Hebrews, Greeks, Malayans, Germans, Portuguese, Cham and English speaking people all have their own words for it. The walls and ceilings of many temples are much darkened by the smoke of burning incense.

For a small fee, incense may be purchased and set to burning either inside or outside the temple in the form of joss sticks. For about three dollars, one can secure spiral formed incense that will burn continually for three months or more.

In the ancient writing of the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Arabs aloes is mentioned. The Arabs use it as medication for the heart and burn it mixed with camphor in worship services. In India, aloes mixed with other products is used to anoint and perfume the dead. An additional aromatic product of the aloes wood is Ky-nam. Ky-nam is composed of aloes wood full of resin-if chewed, it tastes bitter and is gummy; when burned, its resin gives its own characteristic scent. Since Ky-nam is black in color with white spots like the feathers of eagles, it is sometimes called eagle-wood. It is also used as medicine against colds, fevers and dysentery, but with the warnings that if used by pregnant women it will cause miscarriage.

Normally, the aloes incense wood is of a brownish color and makes excellent incense sticks which are often made up into small packages for easy use. Similar to the cedar in the states, aloes is sometimes made into furniture, but is very expensive by comparison. The Portuguese tell of one piece of aloes wood four feet long and two feet thick valued at 54,000 English pounds (roughly $470,000) in the 17th century. An Italian missionary in Vietnam about the same time says the King of Vietnam had a piece of aloes wood weighing about 30 pounds in his office. If made into wooden pillars, only the very rich could own such rarities. Used as incense, the smoke is supposed to please either the spirits of the departed dead or to curry the favor of the gods.

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