Travelogue - Agarwood sourcing and distillation trip in Southeast Asia (Winter 2024)

For a couple months before departing, I had been profoundly rejoicing at, and excited about this new sourcing adventure for quality aromatics in South East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia), where I am blessed with great friendships and long standing collaborations. There is something so much more joyful in working together in co-presence, rather than virtually. Not to mention discovering new regions !

The journey was a good breath of life, having all the ingredients such trips call for:  adventures, delicious local food, some amazing nature, fascinating random encounters, some illness, some great finds, some too good to be true leads (they were indeed not true), some crookery, a lot of learning, and a wonderful bonding of friendship on the go. And a silly bike accident too, that had my friends thought for an instant that I would not make it back.


Setting things in motion

A miraculous quiet, green and less air polluted neighbourhood within Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon was the perfect acclimation door (from the Swiss winter left behind) and starting point : a few things to find / get done quickly, time to visit local contacts and meet a few new ones, and time for finalizing the plans with one of my dear local friends who also wanted to explore new areas.

The main target was of course sourcing Agarwood / Oud. IF you re not familiar with agarwood / oud,   you can learn more in two dedicated posts on the heartnotes blog : Discovering oud I - Entering the jungle & Discovering oud II - Sketch of an incredible cultural history

With that goal in mind, our party of three set on a little journey in central Vietnam, where some of the most sought after wood comes from (Aquilaria crassna, the « original » kynams, etc). Through preparations, we had established a list of collectors (who directly collect wood), “collectors of collectors” (who buy from collectors), and a few select outlets, first in Khánh Hòa & Quảng Nam provinces and beyond to Cambodia towards the end of the trip.

We were looking for high quality wild wood sustainably harvested, which is always a challenge to assess: unless one is present at the time of harvest deep in the jungle, there is never an absolute certainty for the sustainable part. The basic idea of sustainable wild wood is to only collect in areas where it is legal to do so, and to only collect mature and well infected trees or naturally fallen trees. Trees with little infection, and younger trees should be left in peace. With the ever raising worth of wild agarwood, the temptation is difficult to resist for those having no sense of ethics... or ecosystems. There are ways to assess collectors through targeted questions, and reputation checks, but a part of trust / faith reminds inescapable,

We found some excellent stuff for our different purposes :  quality woodchips, some standout pieces, some wood perfect for oil making, some for incense.

When you buy wood for oil making, it is common to buy several kilos in one go, so we sorted through piles and piles of wood, as sometimes with trembling delight and exhilaration, sometimes with accepting disappointment, and at times with the impression to be taken for a ride.


We also encountered a deluge of false claims (mostly in shops, even in some prestigious ones) and adulterated materials.

In the tourist centres, all the shops, from the simple to the fancy in passing of course by the tourist oriented one, will provide material infused with lies. Some of this material will be very low quality, some better, but still far from what being what it is represented as (and costs!), and sometimes even being being counterfeited.


Crook and scrooges

Some of the fakery is classical and can be easy to spot, like added superglue to artificially make the precious wood weight more at little cost. The glue has a distinctive way to reflect light, and you can also scrap it off form the wood, so in most cases it is not too difficult to spot with good light and trained eyes. The only tricky situation comes when it is poured inside narrow hollow branches, which is difficult to assess without breaking the wood (which is totally fine to do if the wood is destined for oil, as it will be ground before distillation - see distillation process below).

While it seems (from one lab tested experiment) that at low temperature slow distillation (100 degree Celsius) none of the glue components volatilize and collect in the oil, at higher temperatures of distillation, it might but I wouldn’t know at which point. On the other hand, if you burn wood with superglue it will emit a foul distinctive smell. It is very harmful to health, too.  


Examples of superlglue

It is very difficult to go through a whole batch of wood to scrutinize it beforehand, at the times of buying, but even for smaller quantities it is a demanding task, taking time and focus. If you deal directly with collectors you know it is their doing and you can write them off, when you go through middlemen it is more tricky to assess the responsibility and their response will usually give you a good hint of where things stand. I personally have no tolerance for corrupting raw materials, and do not prolong collaborations if the responsibility is clear or if such problems re-occur. A dear distiller friend in Vietnam recently decided to stop collaborating with a very well established Saigon vendor for this specific reason: despite more than a decade of collaboration, such episodes kept happening.

Amongst the more elaborated schemes, we also were offered “sinking wood” (a sought after and very pricey form of agarwood, where the resin content is so rich that the wood become heavier than water) that turned out to be laced, inside and invisible to the natural eyes, with sand and little gravels insides so as to artificially sink. While occasionally this can happen naturally with parts of roots systems, here it was made on a scale and with industrially calibrated filler material. But the pieces, from outside, looked very good. We also were offered sinking wood which doesn't sink at all, and false kynam (kynam is the grail for collectors, nowadays virtually impossible to find or commanding impossible prices, even locally reaching 1K / gram or more these days). The false kynam was obtained through the “Indonesian process” but presented as genuine and naturally formed. The Indonesian process (perhaps so named because the technique might have  originated there, though the method is used in other places) implies high temperature high pressure infusion of wood with resin. This process can be made more or less well (some pieces smell quite good, though very resin-like), but remains artificial despite the material being presented as natural.

Those episodes made us waste tremendous time and energy. And without the help of a microscope we could have been in big trouble.

Such little snippets highlight the perils of sourcing and for agarwood, if one’s contacts and expertise are not solid, chances are high that they will be ripped of.


Double checking expensive wood under the microscope


Form matter to (distilled) essence

Now, back to more enthusiasming and inspiring stories

Over the last part of the trip, we went deep in the countryside, a few kilometres from the Cambodia / Vietnam border, to conduct some distillations. We were going to distill two kinds of raw material. A few kilos of “shavings” (from jewellery / high grade pieces carving process) and a few kilos of raw wood.

We started with the raw wood, which we sorted by hands. First, to inspect and double check all pieces for alterations we might have missed, but more joyfully, as it evokes the treasure hunts of childhood, for ”special pieces” worth keeping as such for their stand out quality (the rest about to be ground)

Sorting through piles of wood - to double check counterfeiting, to earn, and to keep a few worthy pieces from the grinder (example below)


There is something strangely liberating, and inspiring, when you are about to grind wood is that you can observe pieces in and out under all angles, because you can actually break them and  “look within” etc. Of course this way you can spot hidden alterations (like the “glue in the hollow part of the branch” mentioned above), but also much more interestingly to study the presence of resin, compare it with your projections of how it would be interwoven in the wood fiber, thus learning a lot in the process.

So a few kilos will take a few hours, especially with nerds like us, exchanging impressions, heating some pieces to check their olfactive profile, making piles, benevolently teasing each other around the best pieces

I must here pause for a token of gratitude to my hosts. Not only for the incredible trip they facilitated, for the humour, the knowledge, the explorations, the hospitality or the incredible opportunities. What moved me the most, though, was the incredible human and buddhist ego-less grace they showed while sorting out pieces like that: “you are a guest and not here the whole time. We have more opportunities than we can afford, so you pick first what you really prefer.”

We prepped the material early morning, before the heat becomes too unbearable. Patiently grinding a few kilos of wood in a small but extremely powerful chinese professional grinder. This thing will make microscopic sand of a granite mountain, if moved rock by rock, hyperbolically speaking.

Each time you open the steel lid after grinding, and pausing for things to settle as can, a huge dust cloud disperse in the air... like an offering of precious raw incense to the gods. For humans it is an ambiguous feeling: the air smells delicious and so oudy that one would be naturally driven to the desire of inhaling deeply, but it is wood dust particles, so actually, it is much wiser not too.

Batch after batch, we reproduce the procedure : manually break the wood and fill the grinder with a tetris-like sensitivity, and grind the current load. Wait a bit, open the lid and offer fragrant golden dust to the air, transfer the powder in the collecting box, sieve through the powder for little chunks that might remain to go for round two on the grinder, refill etc until the pile of wood is literally reduced to dust.

We had decided on a non-soaking process. Soaking is a preliminary step in many traditional ways to prepare the raw material before distillation, wood can be soaked for different amount of times up to a month or more, resulting usually in more funk, barn and animalic notes, amongst other consequences. It is a classic procedure in some traditions of oud making, like for example in India. Without that stage, we directly moved to the distillation workshop where the glorious alambic, handmade, is having his throne.

As we practice hydrodistillation, we fill the “belly” of the alambic with the raw material, and then with water, both to an appropriate degree : neither too little nor too much, so all the material is covered + a good margin, but not filled to the brim, of course. The we tighten the holy seal (that allows to make the still fully hermetic but for the top opening for the distillation column) and start cooking.


Gas allows precise control, and the built-in thermometer allows us to smoothly fine tuned our temperature parameter: around 100 degrees celsius, often 98, 99 once the process is launched, pressure making the different. We aim for slow distillation (6-7 days ongoingly 24h running) . Low pressure, low temperature: the gentlest and most complete form of distillation.

The still runs 24/7 for about a week, in order to extract the more possible oil and the heavier aromatics


Then it is a matter of keeping the system going and purring smoothly, monitoring every few hours, days and night, to make sure all is good and stable, and you can just slowly witness the magical alchemy, as drops and drop of precious essence re-condense from the volatile cloud into a glorious essential oil. In this case, to our great surprise, the oil is mostly sinking. Which is relatively rare, and evokes sinking wood (very precious for agarwood, and is means, when genuine, naturally so deeply infused & intertwined with resin that it makes the wood heavier than water).

The lovely green robe is likely to evolve as the oil matures, and to become brown (though some oils remain green). It is so fresh and also figuratively “green” (and incomplete at first before the distillation is finished) but it is already full of character, personality, and promises. It is always fascinating to compare the actual profile, when an oil is cured for release, with the impression it first made and the projections of its maturity. If you are interested in the curing & aging process, which takes at least a year for oud oils, you can read this post


During the... stillness of distillation days, we conducted different experiments,  combining wood powders for incense making, some pure oud, some blended with high grade sandalwood powder (circa 100 years old mysore !).

During the trip, we had also met with different incense producers and makers, in order to find manufacturers for our own incense, made form scratch under our specification. We were of course also sourcing quality and singular incenses, many for personal use, study and pleasure. It is a different art than the distillation of essences or the composition of perfumes, with different challenges (consistency, burnability, cohesion, the effect of burning, etc.). I am very excited to further developing this ! 

On the side, all throughout the trip, I also explored and sourced some remarkable small scale quality spices, quality variations on famous ones (cinnamon, long pepper, kampot pepper) but also some rare and amazing ones only used locally by certain mountain folks. I found other essences by surprising ways. Some were hobby projects of a high-quality small scale oud agarwood / oil distiller, who, like most of us I imagine, likes to conduce experimental and / or micro batches of regional plants on the side of their main business.


Cinnamon bark


Like everywhere I travel, I also explored local medicinal herbs in different forms, and sourced a few that likely are become household favourites. Lotus seed tea makes an excellent deep relaxant, in passing.

I also met different researchers and logistic suppliers, and worked on a couple of longer term projects that are exciting but too young to be glossed over. With many ideas brainstorming and promising contacts to explore further, virtual exchanges have replaced the so wholesome face to face interactions for the time being. In those multiple space and times, new experimentations are being imagined and co-productions developed. Like with nature, they will bloom and fruit when the time has organically come. Experience has shown it is rarely in our control. 


I love frangipani (and its essential oil!)

The image is a visual allegory of the two last lines, tough




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