The life story of Empress Nam Phương

Wealthy and French-educated, this lady was crowned Miss Indochina three times. As if that was not impressive enough, she went off to marry an emperor and was made an empress right on her wedding day.

A brief introduction of Empress Nam Phương’s life sounds like a fairy tale. It was, even though the later half of this woman’s life was full of ups and downs. 

From a highly favored queen consort, she became an estranged wife, and later on an immigrant dying alone on her sickbed.   

That is the life story of Nam Phương – Vietnam’s last empress, and probably the most unique monarch in the country’s history.

The information in this article is drawn from the books Nam Phương – Hoàng Hậu Cuối Cùng (Nam Phương – The Last Empress) published in 2017, Con Rồng An Nam (Dragon of An Nam) published in 1980, and Wikipedia.

Prestigious upbringing and education

The empress at the age of two
Image adapted from: Wikipedia

If you ask any Saigon residents for the name of a beautiful Catholic church near the city center that’s not the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, the sure answer you’ll get is the Huyện Sỹ Church.

“That’s the church of Empress Nam Phương’s grandfather,” they’ll probably add,  to illustrate the significance of the church.

Sir Huyện Sỹ and wife
Image credit: Dân Sài Gòn

Sir Huyện Sỹ, also known as Sir Lê Phát Đạt, the empress’ grandfather and a well-educated Roman Catholic businessman, financed the establishment of the church. Aside from his generosity and devoutness, he was renowned for his large fortune and listed among southern Vietnam’s richest men in the 19th century. He was given the title the Duke of Long-My.

His family were, thanks to his good name and contributions to the city, made French citizens. Sir Huyện Sỹ gave his daughter’s hand to Pierre Nguyễn Hữu-Hào, a wealthy Catholic merchant.

Born into a family of such pedigree, Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, the future empress, enjoyed the most prestigious upbringing any girl could dream of.

The empress (center) with her sister, father, and mother.
Image adapted from: Wikipedia

Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in Gò Công, but spent her childhood years in Saigon, the regional centre of sophistication and glamour. Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan and her elder sister lived in Villa Montjoye at No. 37 Taberd Saigon, now the South Korean Consulate. 

Every morning, they walked the streets of Lê Văn Duyệt and Bùi Thị Xuân to go to Huyện Sỹ Church.

Couvent des Oiseaux
Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

At the age of 12, she was sent to the Couvent des Oiseaux – an aristocratic Catholic school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

1.75 meters tall with Eastern features, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was a great beauty. Legend has it that she was crowned Miss Indochina three times. 

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

After completing her education in France with a high school diploma, 18-year-old Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan boarded the cruise ship D’Artagnan of the Messagerie Maritime to return home. Interestingly, the 19-year-old Bảo Đại, the emperor of then-An Nam, was also on that ship. 

Some historians have argued that the two first met on the ship and their meeting had been arranged by French authorities who were pushing for a marriage that served political purposes. However, some documents suggested that they didn’t cross paths on the ship but at a ball in Dalat one year later, which sounds so much more cinematic.

We’ll let the readers decide for themselves which “love-at-first-sight” setting they want to believe in as we reveal what happened at the gathering. 

A staged love story or the enchantment of a black áo dài?

Image credit: Pinterest

When the time is right, the stars will align.

Nearly one year after returning to Vietnam, the emperor went to Dalat for a holiday. During his time here, he and governor Pasquier hosted a ball at the iconic hotel Langbian Palace, which is now the Dalat Palace Hotel. 

The invitees were all movers and shakers of the French and Vietnamese communities. Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan’s uncle, Mr Lê Phát An, was also invited. She reluctantly agreed to accompany her uncle to the ball, on the condition that they would leave right after saying hello to the emperor.

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

“I went there reluctantly, so I dressed simply. I wore only a black áo dài made of silk. We were both late for the party and decided to sit at the porch. However, Mr Darle, the governor of Dalat, saw us and insisted on bringing us to see the emperor. The moment the doors opened, I saw the emperor sitting on an armchair right at the center of the hall,” Empress Nam Phương attested to the fateful event that paved the way for her engagement with the most sought-after bachelor in the country back in the day.

Mr Darle introduced Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan by her French name Marie Thérèse, and the gracious debuttante got down on one knee and bowed to the monarch.

Immediately, the band played the tango and the emperor asked Mademoiselle Marie Thérèse to dance with him.

After they got married, Emperor Bảo Đại revealed the reason why he was fascinated with her right from the beginning.

“He told me that he was fascinated by my simple outfit – a black áo dài. I think that one of the reasons why he was interested in me was that I was the only Vietnamese woman at the party who spoke French and performed European etiquette,” she said.

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

In his memoir Con Rồng An Nam, or Dragon of An Nam, Emperor Bảo Đại expressed his enchantment for his wife, “Lan had the beauty of a southern girl, tender and captivating. She enchanted me.” 

For this reason, he later gave her the title Nam Phương, which, according to the emperor, means Parfum du Sud, or Perfume of the South

After a year of dating, Emperor Bảo Đại decided to take his commitment up a notch and marry Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan.

However, there were certain barriers to overcome. 

The royal family were against the marriage

The empress (second from left) and the emperor (first from right)
Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

According to historians, the royal family of the Nguyễn Dynasty were vehemently against this marriage in the beginning. To allow a French-educated woman who practiced a western religion to become the queen of a Confucian-influenced nation was unprecedented.

Well, Emperor Bảo Đại was more than willing to break with precedent. 

If the royal family and the mandarins vehemently opposed the marriage, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan’s family also responded to the emperor’s proposal with conditions that made things even harder to accept. 

All of these requests were unprecedented in Vietnam’s monarchy.

First and foremost, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan should be crowned as queen consort, or empress, right on her wedding day. Secondly, she should remain a Catholic and all of her children be baptized and made Catholic. Most importantly, the couple must obtain permission from the Pope in order to let the emperor practice his Buddhism and his wife practice Catholicism.

The day of the wedding
Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

Despite his mother’s disapproval, the emperor managed to meet most of the conditions and marry the object of his enchantment. What’s more, he agreed to renounce polygamy and take her as his only lawful wife.

In his address to the royal family, the emperor made his point clear, “I’m marrying for myself, not for the royal court.”

Backed by a vast dowry and the fierce support of a king, the beginning of the future queen’s life in the palace couldn’t have been more ideal. 

A unique wedding and life as a favored queen

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

The wedding took place in March 1934, without the approval of the Vatican.

After an extravagant wedding party at An Định Palace with over 700 guests, the coronation ceremony took place one day later.

At Thái Hòa Palace, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was crowned as the empress of An Nam, and titled Empress Nam Phương. He also broke a long-standing tradition by allowing the empress to wear yellow, a color unique to the emperor only.

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

Recalling this unprecedented historical event, Emperor Bảo Đại wrote, 

“Yes, I made my wife queen in this marriage, even though queenship is a title usually given to a king’s wife only after her death. She was wearing a royal robe, a pair of upturned toe cap shoes, and a puffed bonnet embroidered with gemstones. That was the first time in the history of An Nam that a lady walked into the palace amid the ceremonious reception of the royal court. All by herself, she walked into the grand hall and waited for me there, sitting on a low wooden stool.”  

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

After the controversial marriage, the royal family refused to let the newlyweds reside in the Forbidden City. Instead, they stayed inside Kiến Trung Palace. The interiors of this place were later remodelled in French style to become more modern and comfortable for the two who were already accustomed to Western lifestyles.

A fashion icon in her own right

The empress wearing a patterned, high-waisted gown featuring split sleeves
Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

The first lady is the face of a nation, and her public appearance can’t help but reflect the aesthetics and cultural values of her people. 

With this in mind, the empress deftly took advantage of her deep pockets as well as power to experiment liberally with fashion. 

Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

As a Vietnamese lady, she was often seen out and about in a variety of áo dài, from the traditional, modest ones befitting of a supposedly reserved life in the palace to more glamorous versions with a touch of modernity.

Image credit: Ảnh Xưa

Given her French upbringing and education, it didn’t come as a surprise when she was known to be a big fan of Dior as well as Balmain.

She often appeared in royal events and diplomatic ceremonies in splendid, elegant Western shirt dresses and suits.

A visit to the Vatican on 20th July 1939
Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

During the 1930s and 1940s when culture in a large part of Vietnam was heavily driven by French influence, the empress’ sense of fashion was all the rage among young Vietnamese women. 

While her way of life might have made her a role model for many city girls back then, it couldn’t help but drive a wedge between her and her conservative mother in law – Queen Mother Từ Cung.

As a devout Buddhist who came from an underprivileged upbringing and suffered many hardships in her earlier years as a palace servant, the queen mother was inevitably displeased with her Catholic and overly favored daughter-in-law. 

The empress, her children, the queen mother, and the emperor
Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

Even though the empress was known to be a filial and polite person who treated her royal family of Buddhists with respect, she was adamant on raising her children as Catholics.

For example, she refused to let her children wear the blessed accessories that the queen mother obtained from a Buddhist pagoda. She let her children go to the pagodas, but only on major Buddhist celebratory occasions.

Besides, she and her children spent a lot of time in Dalat, a holiday town 800KM away from the palace in Huế. Most of the time, she communicated with her children in French as a habit, a language that her mother-in-law didn’t understand.

A 1937 newspaper featuring an interview with Empress Nam Phương, in which she claimed to read books in the French language only
Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

Before you jump to the conclusion that Nam Phương was being a snob and trying to alienate her mother-in-law by speaking a foreign language, here’s some information for you. Back in the 1930s, French influence in Vietnam, which was then divided into Cochinchina (southern) and Tonkin (northern), was enormous. Most students at public schools, if not all, were educated in French at a young age. 

The French language was so widely used that a great number of Vietnamese vocabulary was borrowed from French. Switching from Vietnamese to French in a conversation was a norm in the day and had nothing to do with patriotism.  

The relationship between the queen mother and her modern daughter-in-law was rarely smooth-sailing. Therefore, she was very glad when her son brought home a second bride – Bùi Mộng Điệp.

Lady Bùi Mộng Điệp
Image credit: Nhạc Xưa

After his abdication on August 25th 1945, Emperor Bảo Đại had an affair with Lady Bùi Mộng Điệp, a Buddhist from northern Vietnam. Even though an official wedding between these two never took place, Lady Bùi Mộng Điệp was recognized and favored by the royal family. She was known to be very respectful and resourceful in organizing Buddhist-themed public events in the palace.

The relationship between the empress and her emperor slowly fell apart. 

Separation from the emperor and a lonely life in France

Image adapted from: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

Empress Nam Phương had five children with Vietnam’s last emperor, whom she brought with her to France in 1947. They were Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bảo Long, Lady Phương Mai, Lady Phương Liên, Lady Phương Dung, and Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bảo Thắng.

The royal family resided in the castle Thorenc in Cannes, a property of the empress’ family. Sometimes, the emperor travelled to France to visit them. 

Image adapted from: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

Her daily activities as an ordinary citizen included playing the piano, reading, gardening, and playing with her dogs. 

The former empress was widely praised for her propriety and ethical values. Even when she was estranged from her husband and living in a modern country, she was never reported seeing or dancing with any man. 

After her kids had grown up and moved to other provinces, the empress also moved out. She relocated to the castle Domain de la Perche in Chabrignac, Corrèze, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, where she lived in a house of 32 rooms surrounded by rising oaks.

Even though she was just an ordinary citizen in France at the time, she was an ultra-rich citizen.

She inherited lots of real estate from her father, which included a big apartment building at Neuilly and one at the Opera Boulevard, as well as properties across Europe such as Maroc and Congo.

In the last years of her life, she expressed her wish to have her body buried in Dalat, near her parents’ tombs, but her children didn’t agree with that. 

Image credit: Dân Sài Gòn

The former empress lived in the castle with two maids, and her children only visited her during summers. In the early 1960s, she suffered from a heart disease, which triggered breathing difficulties.

On 14th September 1963, she had a shower after walking in the sun. Immediately, she had a high fever and couldn’t breathe. The nearest hospital was very far away, so her maids rushed to find a doctor who was living in another village. 

When the doctor arrived, it was too late.

Image credit: Hình Ảnh Việt Nam

At 5PM the same day, the empress passed on at the age of 49, without any family members by her side.

Her funeral was carried out in such a quiet and simple manner that made it hard for the spectators to believe that the person lying in the coffin was a queen.  

Nam Phương is the last and probably the most unique empress in Vietnam’s history 

Even 58 years after her death, we’re still in awe looking at photos of her, which offer a rare glimpse into life in the royal palace before the monarchy came to an end. Aside from her beauty, education, and fashion choices, the last empress was unique in many ways. 

Being favored was one thing – but to have the confidence to lead a completely different lifestyle and uphold the values that she cherished is an attitude that we can all learn from, no matter which era we’re living in.

There were many empresses and concubines in Vietnam’s history that we have yet to learn about in depth, given the lack of both visual and written information about them. Many of them had probably led more impressive lives than Empress Nam Phương. 

Hopefully, we can collect, curate, and bring you more in-depth stories about Vietnamese historical figures.

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Cover image adapted from: Ảnh Xưa and Wikipedia

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