Last Sunday (August 10) marked the peak of "wandering souls month" on Vietnam's lunar calendar, but not a wisp of smoke could be detected around Khe Tang village in Hanoi's Thanh Oai District.
Two years ago, leaders of the 3,200-strong community decided to do away with paper offerings after dismissing the whole practice as a waste of money, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
Le Gia Hang, head of the village’s Elders’ Association, which proposed the votive paper boycott, told the paper that everyone in Khe Tang knows about the rule.
Hang said the habit of burning votive paper items began in the village in the 1990s, but is believed to have originated in China.
“After engaging in it for many years, we realized that the custom had created a lot of trouble and waste for everyone,” he said.
The association met with commune authorities and made the ban official in 2012, starting with a ban in temples and pagodas, and then extending it to private homes.
Village leaders said that, by their unofficial estimate, the rule has saved VND300-400 million (US$14,150-18,870) a year.
National official figures in 2010 meanwhile show that Vietnamese people burn tens of thousands of tons of votive paper every year.
Hanoians spent the most on votive offerings -- an estimated VND400 billion ($20.6 million) a year.
People believe that the paper models they burn rematerialize as real gifts for the spirits of their deceased family members and ancestors in the afterlife.
Shops that once sold such objects have since disappeared in Khe Tang.
Hang said the new rules effectively put an end to the burning of joss and incense sticks at pagodas as well. Instead, pagoda-goers burn spirals of incense, which produce less smoke, last longer and occupy more space in censers thereby discouraging worshipers from adding others.
Trinh Dinh Duong, 72, a scholar of traditional customs in Khe Tang, said that everyday people decide how traditions must be observed and maintained.
“If we decide that a custom is wasteful, bad for the environment or dangerous, such as burning votive paper, we can get rid of it,” he said.
He said Khe Tang was able to reach a consensus on the issue because it has few migrants and most of the villagers grew up in a tight-knit community.