Obituary: Bao Dai

Judy Stowe
Monday 04 August 1997 23:02

Annam was regarded as an exotic backwater in French Indo-China when Bao Dai, who has just died in Paris, ascended the imperial throne in Hue in 1925. Little could he have imagined at the time that within a few years, his country, together with the rest of Vietnam, was to become engulfed in a long series of wars. He was just a boy of 12 who had been summoned home from school in France to perform the many elaborate rites which accompanied the installation of an Emperor of Annam.

On the advice of his French mentors, Bao Dai (the title, meaning "Keeper of Greatness", was given to him on his enthronement) then returned to Paris to complete his education. Apart from the usual academic subjects, he also learnt riding, tennis, how to drive a car and play poker. These pursuits were later to earn him the reputation of being a playboy monarch. Yet the life style to which the French had introduced him differed little from that of other fashionable young men of noble birth during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed he was proud of being the first Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty which had ruled Annam since 1802, to have a modern upbringing instead of being constricted by the ancient rites imposed by the court mandarins.

In 1932, therefore, when at the age of 19 Bao Dai returned to his native Hue to assume his royal duties, he sought to introduce some changes to court procedure. Likewise he was eager to see some alleviation of French tutelage over his realm. These hopes proved to be largely in vain. The one small victory he did achieve was the right to choose his own wife rather than enter into an arranged marriage. His choice fell on a young Catholic girl from the south of Vietnam, then known as Cochin-China, who had been educated by French nuns. The fact that she was not Annamese and of royal birth caused shock and consternation in traditional circles. Nevertheless she was duly installed with full court ritual as the Empress Nam Phuong and during the course of the next few years gave birth to two sons and two daughters.

As for Bao Dai, since he could play little more than a ceremonial role in governing Annam, which was still subject to French domination, he devoted himself increasingly to enjoying his private life, which extended to long hunting expeditions in the mountains bordering on Laos and Cambodia. There at least he could escape from the burden of court ritual to a certain degree and, as he stated in his autobiography, Le Dragon d'Annam (1980), see something of his people rather than rows of backs bent in full prostration.

The outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941 brought few changes to life in Annam. Unlike the rest of South East Asia where the Japanese brought an end to colonial rule and interned all Europeans, in Indo-China they concluded an agreement with the French to continue administering the territory on condition that Japan would be allowed to station some troops there. As the war progressed this Japanese presence attracted some Allied bombing raids but not in Annam where there were no targets of any significance. Bao Dai was therefore able to continue his life undisturbed until March 1945.

By then Paris had been liberated and the French in Indo-China realising that they were likely to be branded as traitors for having collaborated with the Japanese, began making preparations to welcome an Allied invasion force. This prompted the Japanese to stage a military coup to oust the French administration throughout Indo-China, including Annam.

Bao Dai was all the more astonished when on 10 March 1945, a Japanese diplomat paid an official call upon him at the imperial palace in Hue with an invitation for him to proclaim independence for the whole of Vietnam, albeit with a proviso that the country maintain good relations with Tokyo.

A royal edict to this effect was issued the following day. The Emperor then proceeded to invite prominent dignitaries from all over Vietnam to form its first independent government. But other Vietnamese had different ideas about the country's future.

In 1941, the Communist Party under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and keeping its identity well concealed had launched a movement calling itself the Viet Minh, appealing to all Vietnamese to struggle for the liberation of their country from both Japanese and French domination. This movement was largely confined to the northern mountains bordering China until March 1945, when the French administration was ousted and its troops disarmed by the Japanese. Seizing this opportunity, Viet Minh guerrillas began moving south and spreading their network of contacts throughout the country.

These moves were scarcely under way when Japan suddenly announced its surrender to the Allied powers on 15 August. This prompted the Viet Minh to stage an uprising in Hanoi and send envoys to Hue to demand that the Emperor abdicate in favour of Ho Chi Minh as President of a new state called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In the circumstances, although he knew little about the Viet Minh, or for that matter, Ho Chi Minh, Bao Dai felt he had no option but to comply. Accordingly he issued a statement announcing his abdication on 25 August. It included his most famous words: "I would rather live as an ordinary citizen of an independent country than be Emperor of a nation of slaves."

Afterwards the ex-Emperor, reverting to the name of Vinh Thuy which he was given at birth, made his way to Hanoi at the invitation of Ho Chi Minh to become a special adviser to the new republic. He was accorded a courteous welcome but found his duties less than onerous until in early 1946 he was assigned to head an official mission to Chungking, then the capital of China under President Chiang Kai-shek.

Realising this was a pretext to get him out of Vietnam, Bao Dai declined to return and retired to live in Hong Kong. There he watched from afar as the French returned to Vietnam, tried to reach an agreement with Ho Chi Minh and, when these efforts failed, embarked on full-scale war. He then began to receive feelers from various Vietnamese politicians opposed to the Viet Minh as well as from the French about heading a new State of Vietnam.

Since Bao Dai had no wish to be seen as a French puppet, these negotiations were very protracted. In June 1948 he agreed to be flown in a French seaplane to a warship anchored in the picturesque Gulf of Ha Long in northern Vietnam to witness the signing of a document whereby France conceded a measure of independence. He then went on to Paris for further discussions which eventually culminated on 8 March 1949 at the Elysee Palace, where a series of agreements were concluded, leading to the establishment of the State of Vietnam headed by Bao Dai, although no longer as an Emperor with special royal privileges.

To symbolise his new authority, he immediately flew back to Vietnam to tour the country from Saigon to Hanoi including of course a visit to Hue, his former imperial capital, where the court had been disbanded. He also presided over the establishment of a new government with ministers from all over Vietnam as well as holding discussions with French generals who were still battling against the Viet Minh, about setting up a Vietnamese National Army to join in the fight.

Bao Dai then had the satisfaction of seeing the State of Vietnam being accorded diplomatic recognition as an independent country by the Western powers at the end of 1949. A couple of months later, however, Ho Chi Minh, who had been living as a guerrilla in the northern mountains, made a secret visit to Peking and Moscow where he managed to secure Chinese and Soviet recognition for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. That set the scene for the next stage in the war.

During the next four years, Bao Dai chose to spend most of his time in France where his children were being educated and where too he could keep a closer eye on the developing international situation. When he did visit Vietnam, it was usually to stay at his villa in the mountain resort of Dalat from where he could once more engage in his favourite sport of hunting.

Meanwhile, with Chinese military aid the Viet Minh were building up their strength in the north of the country. The climax came in May 1954 when after a 57-day siege the Viet Minh succeeded in overwhelming the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Fortuitously this occurred on the eve of the opening of a major international conference in Geneva on the future of Indo-China at which Bao Dai played only a backstage role. It resulted amongst other things in an agreement for France to withdraw totally from Indo-China and for Vietnam to be temporarily partitioned between the State of Vietnam in the south and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north.

At the same time Bao Dai was persuaded, largely as a result of American pressure behind the scenes that the best person to head a strongly anti- Communist government in Saigon was Ngo Dinh Diem, a former mandarin from the court in Hue. That did not endear him to the former Emperor. The feeling was mutual. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem staged a referendum throughout the State of Vietnam to decide whether it should become a republic with himself as President. With Bao Dai absent in France and refusing to campaign, the result was unsurprisingly in the affirmative.

That marked the end of Bao Dai's official career. Since 1955, although he undoubtedly followed developments in Vietnam closely, he rarely commented on them. Nor did he live as a rich foreign exile. The villa which he occupied in Cannes during the early 1950s was the property of the State of Vietnam. Instead, until his death, he lived in a modest flat in Paris on a French state pension with the occasional donation from Vietnamese living abroad to finance a few foreign trips.

Some members of the extended Annamese royal family were hoping that he would emulate the example of King Sihanouk of Cambodia and try to regain his throne. Bao Dai was however a very different character and his direct heirs appear to be content with their life in Western Europe.

Judy Stowe

Nguyen Vinh Thuy: born Hue, Annam 22 October 1913; succeeded 1925 as Emperor of Annam, taking the title Bao Dai, abdicated 1945; married 1933 Marie-Therese Nguyen Huu Hao (died 1963; two sons, two daughters); died Paris 31 July 1997.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in