Following the Ancient Scent of Trầm Hương 2

(Continued from Following the Ancient Scent of Trầm Hương 1)

In one of my previous posts, Following the Ancient Scent of Trầm Hương 1, I touched upon the agarwood tree and how oud was processed. This post digs deeper into the dendrology (study of trees) of agarwood and the various types of agar resins.

Ancient Origins of Dó trầm (Agarwood)

Around 570 million years ago, when volcanos were still erupting and the land was being formed, the resulting geological formations resulted in a fertile red basalt land.

This fertile area spread from Central Vietnam, which includes the Central Highlands of present-day Vietnam as well as the South Central Coast, all the way down to the to the Southern region, up to and including the island of Phú Quốc

The mountainous terrain combined with the intersection of both hot and cold ocean currents created the tropical primeval forests that are hot, humid, and monsoonal.

This unique environment fostered an ecosystem that has been known as the land with the most biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Part of this diversity includes the Dó trầm (agarwood) trees that are at the literal heart of Trầm Hương (oud).

Although other areas of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Indonesia do have beautiful agarwood trees with attractive streaks running along the length of their trunks and limbs, they produce inferior quality Trầm Hương, resulting in a scent that is much less intense and not as pleasing. This is due to the fact that the highest quality dó trầm trees require optimum climate and soil conditions in order to create the highest quality Trầm Hương. Vietnam’s unique climate and soil just so happens to offer the best conditions for the best trees to grow and thrive.

Three varieties of Trầm Hương in Vietnam.

Since agarwood is native to Vietnam, there are many names for the many varieties this wood. The three main types of Trầm Hương in Vietnam are the Kỳ nam, the Trầm Hương, and the Trầm tốc. For each of these varieties, there are sub-categories with their own specialized names. For the purpose of this post, I will only be mentioning their top-level names.

Kỳ nam

Collected from the dó bầu tree, the Kỳ nam resin is the rarest and most expensive of the trầm hương oud resins. Kỳ nam is not available anywhere on Earth except for a small region in Southeast Asia, specifically within the Central region of Vietnam from Thanh Hóa to Khánh Hòa.

It is naturally derived, meaning it is created naturally, from the stress and wounds that a dó bầu would encounter throughout its long multi-century lifespan.

Due to the fact that only 2% of these trees develop this specific sort of sap which must also become infected with the Phialophora parasitica fungus, kỳ nam resin is so rare that it is mostly used as a highly prized, durable store of wealth to be locked away in vaults and traded only during lean times. It is also considered a medicinal resin that only the upper echelon of society, the kings and princes of the royal courts, have access to.

There are four types of kỳ nam: White, Blue, Yellow, and Black

White, Blue, Yellow, and Black Kỳ Nam

1. White Bạch Kỳ Nam is a fossilized variety of kỳ nam with a unique light milky color that can be ivory, white, or light grey in coloring. It is the product of a very lengthy natural fossilization process that requires at least 3,000 years to develop.

This process creates a hard flammable rock-like resin which contains the highest concentration of essential oils of all the kỳ nam resin. It is velvety and smooth to the touch, and when burned, it releases five separate layers of scent that is considered extremely sweet and fragrant.

Bạch Kỳ Nam was also ground up and mixed with lukewarm water to be used for medicinal purposes to support the nervous system and the digestive system. 

It has expectorant, anti-fungal and bacterial effects and effectively treated nausea and headaches.  In addition, it also provided pain relief and aided in the treatment of acute asthma, retrograde gas, diarrhea, kidney failure, and urinary retention. 

Mentally, it can help to relax the mind, sleep well, reduce stress and anxiety.  In addition, its fragrance can purify the air and repel insects.

In ancient times, this pale fossilized kỳ nam was reserved only for the emperor to use because not only was it difficult to find, it could not be cultivated or farmed. Nobody used it but the Emperor because it was illegal to be used for anyone, including his immediate family.

In the modern era, anybody who’s got enough cash can use But who would want to grind up or burn this extremely rare museum-quality fossil? You’re lucky if you can even feast your eyes upon such a rare item. For the collector of rare artifacts, it is worth far more than its weight in gold.

2. Blue Thanh Kỳ Nam is called Thanh (meaning blue) because it has a distinct color that is easily recognized. The ‘blue‘ resin is a bit of a misnomer since it is not truly blue but more a deep purplish red.

Although not quite as rare as the white Bạch Kỳ Nam, it is still, nevertheless very rare. Its extremely dense resinous content takes about 2500 years to form.

Because of the eye-catching coloration, along with the rarity of the blue Kỳ Nam, it is often found in crafted beaded jewelry and other types of carved art.

Since it is slightly less rare and less valuable than the white fossilized resin, it was allowed to be used by members of the royal family–if they could find it and if they could afford it. At the very least, all a person needed to do is to claim kinship with some far-flung royalty if they were to be caught with a chunk of this supremely valuable blueThanh Kỳ Nam.

3. Yellow Hoàng Kỳ Nam has a dark yellow color with a brownish tinge. It takes 1500 years or more to create this hard and heavy amber colored resin-filled wood.

The Yellow Hoàng Kỳ Nam is famous for having a satin-like luster resin which is perfect for religious carvings and scented beaded prayer mandalas and necklaces.

Although not as rare as the white or the blue Kỳ Nam, it still fetches a very high price, and in ancient times, emperors often gave to other countries as diplomatic gifts.

4. Black Hắc Kỳ Nam, the least expensive of the expensive Kỳ Nams, has a texture and property akin to tar–namely, hard and heavy. 

The cultivation time of Hắc Kỳ Nam is roughly around 1000 years, so although not as rare or ancient as the first three types of resin, it is still quite limited in supply.

When Black Hắc Kỳ Nam is exposed to light, it is said that its surface will sparkle like stars in the night sky. It truly is a treasure to behold.

Trầm Hương

Trầm Hương: This second variety of resin comes from the dó trầm tree. It is what the luxury world at large has access to, and is targeted for imports as well as domestic use for the world’s premier perfume and incense trade. This is the essence that is found in the perfumes that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and what is most commonly used to practice the art of hương đạo the Tao of Scent.

Although oud perfumes are expensive, they are still fairly accessible to the average person. I most certainly would not be able to afford any sort of perfume that is made from the (much) more expensive Kỳ Nam variety.

To be honest, I don’t even know if they make perfume from any of the colored (white, blue, yellow, black) kỳ nam resins since these types are mostly hoarded as part of a rich family’s store of wealth.

Versace Oud pour Femme

The image of the warrior or royalty, practicing the tao of incense in a quiet, dark atmosphere more suitable for an introverted spiritual life, has now given way to the more modern young socialite in full Lululemon gear, practicing the tao of Zoomba.

That unmistakable scent once dedicated to the Zen state of the martial artist is now incorporated into high end perfumes for the haute-couture.

Trầm Hương is far less expensive than Kỳ nam because it is farmed and cultivated in a more sustainable manner. The time required to cultivate it is far less than the hundreds or even thousands of years required for the more precious kỳ nam resin.

For commercial purposes, young dó trầm trees are planted within protected farms and nurtured until they are large enough (7 to 10 years old) to begin introducing the Phialophora parasitica fungus via careful cuts into the trees.

Once the Trầm Hương has grown in adequate amounts, it is extracted with care so as to not kill the tree and then processed to extract the scent which is then used in perfumes and incense.

With global trade flourishing in many parts of the world, including Vietnam, we will continue to see Trầm Hương proliferate into high quality products that are relatively affordable, even for the average Taobabe like me to be able to enjoy on a regular basis.

Trầm tốc

Trầm tốc is the most accessible of all the agar wood products. It is still real Trầm Hương but it is very inexpensive due to the way the resin forms.

Agar wood carved prayer beads.

Unlike the the Trầm Hương: resin, which forms in convenient clumps, the trầm tốc resin runs up and down the tree in long vertical lines which makes it much more difficult to extract. This makes Trầm tốc better suited for uses such as carved statues and beaded jewelry that effuse a beautiful light scent.

Since it cannot be extracted without a huge amount of effort, the tree is not left to age for ten years but cultivated as soon as it is large enough to provide a decent amount of wood that can be used for processing.

The bad news is, without the length of time required to age the resin, the scent of trầm tốc is very light. The good news however, is that just as it would if left for the necessary number of years to age, it does get stronger over time. One merely needs to hang onto the carved items for a decade or more.

The Faking of Trầm Hương

It’s not easy to fake Trầm Hương, because let’s face it. With such a unique scent, Trầm Hương cannot be mistaken for any other aromatic wood such as sandalwood or cinnamon (unless . Likewise, sandalwood and cinnamon are also very unique and cannot be confused for anything other than themselves.

Heavy agar wood sinks in water.

But at “five-thousand-dollar-per-pound ,” there will always be shysters who will try to part you from your hard-earned money for a worthless piece of wood that has been soaked or sprayed with the scent of Trầm Hương.

With such a high value, it is destined to be eternally faked; however, even though counterfeits abound, there is a way to tell a higher quality Trầm tốc from the cheaper non-agarwood varieties out there, and the key is the resin itself.

The more resin present in the wood, the heavier and darker the wood is. Very light-weight pale colored trầm tốc has little resin within the wood and darker, heavier woods have more oils and resin within it.

Real trầm hương is famous for sinking when placed in water due to the dense weight of its resin. The heaviest of the woods will even sink in water.

So, buy agar wood and all its products, from a reputable dealer and bypass those that seem oddly cheap, because I assure you, even in ancient times, Trầm Hương was never cheap. It is not cheap now, and it will never be cheap.

If you truly want to experience real, high quality Trầm Hương, the best that the royalty of ancient times experienced, purchase high quality oud oils and perfumes from the top names in perfumeries and be instantly transported back in time to that age when wearing this scent was synonymous with being part of the royal class.

  1. Cultural Characteristics of Vietnamese Agarwood
  2. Medicinal Purposes
  3. Hương Đạo