Bao Dai: Vietnam's last Emperor
Bao Dai (1913–1997) was the Emperor of Annam from 1926 to 1945 and the Chief of State of Vietnam from 1949 to 1955.
The last Emperor in a line that ruled Vietnam for a century and a half, Bao Dai was born Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy, the son of Emperor Khai Dinh. He succeeded to the throne in 1926 at the age of 12, and was given the name of Bao Dai (Keeper of Greatness), but left Vietnam under a French-appointed regent to study in Paris before returning to the Imperial City of Hue to assume on the largely ceremonial duties of the 13th emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. Although a puppet ruler under French colonial authority, Bao Dai embarked on enlightened reforms of the judicial and educational systems, and attempted to put an end to the outdated traditions of Vietnamese royalty. He ended the ancient mandarin custom that required aides to rest their foreheads on the ground while addressing the emperor. However, his hedonistic lifestyle, love of hunting and profligate excursions to fashionable European destinations soon earned him a playboy image. He built palaces, royal residences and hunting lodges all over the country, and maintained a bevy of mistresses.He collaborated with both the French and the Japanese who occupied the country during the Second World War. The retreating Japanese declared Vietnam independent under Bao Dai and left the country. However, Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces were having none of it, and ‘persuaded’ the Emperor to abdicate and become ‘supreme adviser’ to Ho Chi Minh to add legitimacy to the new regime. This was a short-lived appointment: Bao Dai soon decided that France offered a more congenial environment.In 1949, the French convinced him to return to Vietnam hoping that he could be an alternative leader to Ho Chi Minh, whose forces had resumed resistance towards the colonialists.Reinstated with the titles of 'Premier' and 'Emperor' with his ‘government’ recognised by the United States and Britain, Bao Dai quickly resumed his lavish lifestyle and left the trivia of running the country to his French advisors, spending his time hunting in the central highlands and dallying with his many mistresses. For his co-operation, he received a lavish allowance of about seven million dollars each year from the Americans.After Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accord's 'temporary' partition of the country, Bao Dai made an abortive attempt to take control of South Vietnam, but was soon ousted and ‘reigned’ under the U.S.-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1955, Diem used a rigged referendum to send Bao Dai into exile.Thereafter, he took almost no interest in his homeland, choosing instead a hedonistic life in Paris and the Riviera centred on golf, bridge tournaments and women.
Having squandered most of his royal fortune, he spent the final years of his life in a modest Paris apartment. His wealth steadily trickled away - in 1972 his 84-year-old mother, who remained in Vietnam after his departure, apparently sold the family porcelain to help her only son to survive.
After spending nearly half his life in exile, the last Emperor of Vietnam died in a military hospital in Paris at the age of 83, leaving two sons and four daughters from his two marriages.