The stories that dead people tell

For those not satisfied with this year’s Halloween celebrations late last month, there is something real on offer in Ho Chi Minh City – a 19th century mummy that can provide the foundation for taking one’s imagination to new, spooky heights.

The mummy of Tran Thi Hieu, who is believed to have died in 1869 when she was around 60 years old, is on display at the Vietnam History Museum (2 Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City).

She is believed to be a close relative of Gia Long (1762-1820) – the first king of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945).

It has been in Room 4 of the museum since its excavation in 1994 by local archaeologists. It is neither the first mummy excavated in the country or the city nor the oldest of its kind in Vietnam or the world, but it was listed among world’s 10 most shocking mummies by Fox News in 2011.

It said that the “shocking” mummies “have changed a good deal of what we know about the history of preserving the dead.”

The mummy is also called Xom Cai Mummy for the original “house” that hosted her – a one-hundred-square-meter tomb which was a pagoda-like structure featuring a gate, a yard, an outer building and an inner one with sophisticated decorations.

It was located in Xom Cai (Cai Hamlet or Area) in District 5 in the city. Today, the woman is housed underneath glass, wearing her traditional Vietnamese burial garments; rings, bracelets, and other jewelry.

Renowned archaeologist Do Dinh Truat, who led the excavation works in January in 1994 following an accidental discovery by the locals the same year, said he never forgets how he struggled in his decision to unearth the structure since the main tomb was “accompanied” by two other coffins, of which the first was bigger than Hieu’s containing just a male skull and bones, while the other functioned as an amulet to protect the royal lady’s corpse and her eternal sleep from being awakened by the living.

Hieu’s tomb was found amidst 15 other “ordinary” ones in the area.

Eternal mysteries

Ancient tombs, especially the ones with amulets, are always full of mystery that science can’t fully explain, said Truat, who has been involved the excavation of several ancient tombs and has researched mummies in Vietnam.

Truat said he does not take any excavation lightly. Hieu’s amulet coffin for instance, was probably meant for her maid or guard who was buried to serve their master in the afterworld and was buried deeper in the earth than their mistress’s coffin.

“Whether the amulet coffin should be excavated or not troubled me a lot. If I did not do it, I would be irresponsible at my job, but if I did, I may suffer bad luck that we have been warned of in advance by ancestors,” Truat told An Ninh The Gioi (World Security) newspaper, adding that he finally did carry out the excavation.

The amulet coffin was a rotten one containing just a few broken, crumbled bones.

A week later, Truat accidentally fell from a banister on the 1st floor to the ground, causing him a serious hip injury that required several operations to correct and confined him to three months in bed.

A long scar on the hip serves as a constant reminder of his experience, though there are some who argue the accident was just a coincidence.

Despite the accident, Truat considers himself lucky since he had one week before the accident to complete the rest of his work on the mummy and gain more insightful information on the mummy’s biography, Vietnam’s embalmment methods as well as culture and society during the 19th century.

The tomb was built firmly, using coral powder as quicklime, sand, treacle, and active coal. It took a team of 15 young men 40 days to break the compound and reach the bottom which was eight meters deep.

The compound covered the sarcophagus (outer coffin) and the coffin from top to bottom to prevent air, bacterium and other contaminants from penetrating and decomposing the corpse. Both coffins were painted with a layer of tar to prevent a fragrant, red liquid – pine oil, the main ingredient inside that contained the intact body of the 1.52-meter tall woman – from running out.

Covering the coffins were two pieces of sedge mat, the colors of which had not faded, and a pile of giay ban (traditional paper used by the Dao ethnic minority in the northern mountainous province of Cao Bang) as desiccators.

The body, which was soaked in a solution (for resistance against worms and decomposition) was rolled in many layers of cloth and wore nine layers of gowns.

What was under the shroud still amazes Truat and other archaeologists.

“After nearly a century and a half, her remains looked lively as if she was just sleeping,” said Truat. “Her skin was still soft and smooth, her hair black and long, and the joints could bend and stretch well.”

Ba Trung Phu of the museum, which first opened in 1929 as Blanchard de la Brosse and is now home to more than 30,000 artifacts, told Vietweek that “the body which absorbed the oil can stop the decomposing process for hundreds of years later, even though it is exposed to the outside environment.”

So far, scientists have been able to figure out the ingredients of both the compound and the solution, but not the ratios in which they were used.

“How the people in the past prepared such for embalmment is still a secret,” said Pham Duc Manh, Dean of History Department of the city’s University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Hieu was identified based on a silk monogrammed item of clothing that carried the name.

The item was found next to the corpse, together with several other objects, including rings, a necklace and bracelets, a pair of shoes made of leather and cloth embroidered with golden thread and bored with seven holes representing seven stars of the Ursa Major constellation, often seen in tombs of royal members and imperial concubines in the north of Vietnam.

According to Taoism, Ursa Major can protect the dead from disasters and evils in the afterlife.

In addition to the shoes, a piece of silk with Han script, referring to Hieu’s royal origin was also found in the coffin. Since the writing is blurred due to the resin, researchers have only been able to figure out four words “Hoang gia cung liem” (royal burial).

Another piece of writing on says that her Buddhist name is Minh Truong, and that she is a disciple of Monk Chanh Niem, belonging to the 37th generation of Lam Te School that originated in China.
The fact that her hands, feet and body were soft, delicate and small was added evidence of her noble status.

“She lived a happy and leisurely life,” senior researcher Truat said.
The highlight of the museum was taken to the HCMC Medical and Pharmaceutical University’s Hospital for research and later moved to the Vietnam History Museum for preservation and display. Every three months, forensic experts from the hospital check and maintain the mummy.

That Tran Thi Hieu was buried with several objects made of gold tells archaeologists that she was a royal member of Nguyen Dynasty since there are very few mummies in the country shrouded with precious belongings.

Others discovered so far include the renowned mummy of King Le Du Tong (1679-1731), excavated in 1958 in the central northern province of Thanh Hoa.

Archaeologists assume that the Nguyen Dynasty used her death as a good opportunity to enhance their reputation after its founder defeated the Tay Son Dynasty and ascended to the throne in 1802.

Mummy facts
According to Prof Pham Duc Manh, after the 15th century, Vietnam had developed its own embalmment method that has been lost since early 20th century.

The embalming ritual, which purposely reflected the difference between classes in the society at that time, began when the dying person was about to draw his/her last breath, says the lecturer with city’s University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Firstly, they were given a strong-tasting “water medicine” called hoi duong (bringing back to life) that had cinnamon as its mainingredient. The drink would minimize the ravages of bacterium.

Then after the person died, she/he was washed with a fragrant lotion as part of the funeral ceremony, which was another way to prevent bacteria from entering the body before the last shrouding steps.

The oldest mummy in Vietnam so far is that of lady Duong Thi Bi, mother of King Le Nghi Dan (1459-1460), buried in the northern city of Hai Phong; whereas the mummy of the highest status is the 11th King of Le Dynasty, Le Du Tong (1679-1731).

The smallest composite tomb with a mummy discovered inVietnam so far was excavated in Nam Dinh Province in 2011.

According to Dr. Nguyen Lan Cuong, Secretary General of the Vietnam Archaeology Association, the outer coffin was 107cm in length, 36cm in width and 40cm in height, while the inner coffin was 94.5cm in length, 27.3cm in width and 33.4cm in height.

Numerous mummies have been unearthed in Vietnam, of which the first mummy unearthed in Ho Chi Minh City after the end of the Vietnam War was that of Huynh Cong Ly, father-in-law of Minh Mang (1791-1841), the second king of Nguyen Dynasty.

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