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NY Times: Bao Dai, 83, Last Emperor of Vietnam
August 2, 1997
Bao Dai, 83, Last Emperor of Vietnam
By PHILIP SHENON
ao Dai, the last emperor in a line that ruled Vietnam for a
century and a half, died Thursday in France, where he
spent nearly half of his life in exile after abdicating in 1945.
The French Defense Ministry, which made the announcement
Friday, said he died in a military hospital in Paris at the age
Despite the hopes of Vietnamese nationalists early in the
century that Bao Dai might emerge as a pioneer of Vietnamese
independence, he was often seen as the puppet of others --
first, the French colonialists, then the Japanese occupiers of
World War II, then the communist movement led by Ho Chi
Minh, then the French again.
He finally left Vietnam in the mid-1950s, when he was
deposed in a rigged referendum that abolished the monarchy.
He played almost no role in his homeland thereafter, choosing
instead a hedonistic life in Paris and along the Riviera that
centered around golf, bridge tournaments and women.
Born Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy on Oct. 22, 1913, he was
given the imperial name Bao Dai ("Keeper of Greatness") on
his succession as emperor in 1926, when he was 12.
With France the colonial ruler, he was sovereign in little more
than title, and the French appointed a regent to manage the
court's activities while Bao Dai completed his education in
He returned home to the imperial city of Hue in 1932,
assuming the ceremonial duties of the 13th emperor of the
Despite the limitations of his authority, Bao Dai championed
reforms in the judicial and educational systems, and he
attempted to put an end to the more outdated trappings of
Vietnamese royalty. He ended the ancient mandarin custom
that once required aides to touch their foreheads to the ground
when addressing the emperor.
But he became far better known for his leisure activities. He
established an early reputation as an adventurer and playboy,
devoting weeks at a time to hunting expeditions in the
Vietnamese rain forests.
He is believed to have singlehandedly bagged a large
percentage of Vietnam's tigers. He preferred to track the tigers
into their dens, with a lamp attached to his head and a rifle at
He displayed no similar courage in dealing with the Japanese
when they swept across across Southeast Asia and occupied
Vietnam during World War II. Bao Dai was allowed to retain
his throne in hopes that his presence would demonstrate
continuity and quiet the population. With defeat looming in
March 1945, the Japanese declared Vietnam an independent
country under Bao Dai.
When Japan surrendered, the Vietnamese communists under
Ho Chi Minh declared themselves to be Vietnam's new rulers
and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Bao Dai,
whose government was tainted by its collaboration with the
Japanese, agreed to abdicate in exchange for an appointment
as "supreme adviser" to Ho Chi Minh.
It soon became clear, however, that the communists had no
intention of sharing any power with the former emperor. And
with France attempting to reassert its colonial claim to
northern and central Vietnam by force, Bao Dai left for exile in
Hong Kong and China.
In 1949 he was coaxed home by the French, who saw him as a
possible alterative to Ho Chi Minh, whose guerrillas were then
at war with the French colonial army.
Bao Dai returned to Vietnam with the titles of premier and --
again -- emperor. His government was recognized by the
United States and Britain in 1950, but it never won widespread
As before, Bao Dai seemed to take less interest in governing
Vietnam than in perfecting a lavish life style. He left major
decisions to his French-backed advisers, preferring instead to
spend his time with his many mistresses at his hunting lodge
in the cool highlands of central Vietnam.
When the 1954 peace accord between the French and the
communists resulted in the division of Vietnam into North and
South, Bao Dai and his advisers tried to assume true power in
But he was thwarted by the U.S.-backed premier, Ngo Dinh
Diem, who organized a referendum in 1955 that deposed Bao
Dai and ended the monarchy. In 1963, Diem was himself
ousted and assassinated in a U.S.-backed coup.
As war erupted between the United States and the
communists, Bao Dai remained largely silent about the
convulsions of his homeland.
But in 1972, in a rare public statement, issued in France, he
appealed to the Vietnamese people for national reconciliation.
"The time has come to put an end to the fratricidal war and to
recover at last peace and accord," he said.
Having squandered most of his royal fortune, he spent the final
years of his life in a modest Paris apartment. In 1972 his
84-year-old mother, who remained in Vietnam after his
departure, was reported to have sold off the family porcelain to
help her only son in his exile.
His first wife, Nguyen Huu Thi Lan, died in 1968. The
following year he married Monique Baudot. From the two
marriages, he had two sons and four daughters.