The mystery of the Vietnamese mummies

24 November 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – The Vietnam Archaeology Institute take on the conservation of two 300-year-old preserved bodies of monks. The two mummies are regarded as sacred objects and how they came to be mummified (embalmed, really) is a mystery.

Vietnam Net Bridge, 24 Nov 2007

The mummies return
Duc Hanh heads to Dau pagoda where where two mysterious mummies have lived in silence for 300 years Past a lake and a number of paddy fields, the Dau pagoda sits in isolation near the outskirts of Gia Phuc village in Ha Tay province.

Although originally built in the 11th century under the Ly Dynasty, the pagoda bears the hallmarks of Le-Nguyen dynasty in the 17th century as a number of renovations occurred at that time. Dau pagoda is officially named Thanh Dao Tu or Phap Vu Tu and is dedicated to the Goddess of Rain.

But I’m here to meet two monks, who are shrouded in mystery. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking these monks were just statues. But in actual fact these are a pair of monks, Vu Khac Minh and monk Vu Khac Truong, who lived in the pagoda more than 300 years ago, were embalmed and preserved after their death.


These figures are called ‘xa loi Phat’ in Vietnamese, which means, basically, the valuable remains of Buddha that cannot be burnt with fire, dissolved in water or damaged by the passing of time or inclement weather. In other words, the monks are mummies.

When I enter, the pagoda is rather quiet. A few pilgrims are around but the head monk is absent.
On the altar, the mummified monks sit cross-legged in a permanent state of Zen as sweet smelling incense wafts through the air.

Before passing away, Vu Khac Minh confined himself to a room to meditate in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Legend has it he took one jar of water and one jar of oil inside and informed his disciples to only open the door 100 days after no sound had been heard from inside.

“If my body is undamaged, cover it with tree resin. If it’s smelly, bury it in the room,” his final message read.

After 100 days the room was opened and his dead body was covered with wax-tree resin using traditional lacquer techniques. How exactly he was embalmed is somewhat of a mystery.

According to Professor Nguyen Lan Cuong from the Vietnam Archeology Institute, two monks were embalmed using different techniques.

“In most cases, people have to pull out the body’s internal organs and soak the body with chemicals before embalming, but I believe nothing has been drawn from the monks’ bodies. There is no sign of any chemicals except the waxy tree resin that was used and the statues have been displayed in open-air for 300 years,” says Cuong.

“Their bodies are well preserved thanks to the multi-layered coat of tree resin, cloth and paper. We know of traditional lacquer’s durability after finding lacquered cups in ancient tombs in Chau Can (Ha Tay province) which are 2,000 years old.”

Lacquer artist Dao Ngoc Han claims that not only is the lacquer coat an incredible feat, but the unknown craftsmen’s artistic sensibilities show real talent.

The two statues have been through the wars, quite literally, and survived some bad spells of weather.

“Two French soldiers smashed the knees of Vu Khac Minh to examine inside and both monks were damaged during heavy floods in 1893,” says Lai, a 78-year-old devout Buddhist. “The Vu Khac Truong mummy is clearly damaged with a lot of visible cracks and decay.”

This despite the fact that in 2003 a team from Vietnam Archaeology Institute and Vietnam History museum led by professor Nguyen Lan Cuong repaired the two statues. As I leave Lai is reciting Buddhist scriptures by the monks, and while a watchful eye is necessary, further and regular preservation is also required to ensure these precious and mysterious mummies continue to stand the test of time.

Getting there to Dau Pagoda

Dau pagoda is in Gia Phuc village, Nguyen Trai commune, Thuong Tin district, Ha Tay province, about 30km south of Hanoi. From the city centre, take the Giai Phong road for 15km, then turn right and after 13km you will come to a dyke, turn left there and you’ll find the pagoda on your righthand side 2km further along – you can’t miss it!

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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