"Perfume of the South"
A Tribute to Her Majesty Empress Nam Phuong of Viet-Nam
            Marie-Therese Nguyen Huu Hao, who became the last Vietnamese Empress, was born in Saigon on December 4,  1914. She was the daughter of wealthy Cochinchinese (south Vietnamese) merchants; His Excellency Pierre Nguyen Huu Hao the Duke of Long My and his wife the Duchess Marie Le Thi Binh. Cochinchina was that part of Vietnam directly annexed by the French as a French colony and as well as being members of the Vietnamese nobility, the Nguyen Huu Hao were also devout Catholics and true examples of the "franco-annamite" culture idealized by the old French colonial empire. Due to the wealth of her family, Marie-Therese was able to go abroad to be educated in France where she studied at the prestigious Convent des Oiseaux in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
            Once she returned to Vietnam she became a renowned beauty and one of the most famous beauty queens in Indochina. It was also around this time that the Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam began looking for a wife. Marie-Therese was introduced to the Emperor by Pierre Pasquier, the Resident Superior in Hue, and although Bao Dai was never one to miss a pretty face, it was the education of the southern beauty which impressed him the most. Bao Dai had been educated in Europe as well and he found none of the other candidates brought to his attention, such as women from the Thai nobility or the daughters of the local mandarins could match him intellectually. Marie-Therese could and was also very elegant, refined, of good background and very attractive. She was also musical, which he liked, and shared his interest in sports.
            The Emperor soon decided that Marie-Therese was to be his choice for wife; however, there were problems to overcome that would ultimately reach around the world. The Empress Dowager was strongly opposed to the idea of her son marrying a Catholic, something that an Emperor of a Buddhist country with a Confucian monarchy was simply not supposed to do. Moreover, she was herself a priestess of the native Cao Dai religion, a rather bizarre sect which had sprung up during the colonial period which tried to combine all religions into one. The old ladies of the court were also opposed to the other many innovations Bao Dai had enacted. He abolished the kowtow, the old privy council and pledged to abolish the harem, taking only one wife and through this especially the court ladies saw their influence in government about to be eliminated.
         However, the Empress Dowager, like many of her relatives, was an avid gambler and the family had accumulated some considerable debts over the years which were hard to pay on their own fixed income. The Empress Dowager was finally won over to the idea of the young Catholic girl marrying her son as her family wealth could then be used to pay off some of the debts of the imperial court. However, the Catholic Church itself was also something of an obstacle to the marriage. At the time, rules for Catholics marrying non-Catholics were rather more strictly enforced than they are today and for the Church to allow a Catholic ceremony for the wedding any children of the union would have to be brought up as Catholics. This was not considered possible for Vietnamese royals, especially the eldest son who would one day become Emperor, the "Son of Heaven" and be required to participate in the pagan rites of the national cult.
            Working through the French ambassador an attempt was made to obtain a papal dispensation to go ahead with marriage in spite of the fact that the children would not be raised as Catholics. The Vatican refused to grant such a dispensation through the French did everything in their power to persuade the Vatican, from suggesting the benefits of having a Catholic in the Vietnamese royal family to warning that Catholic England was lost in a similar way (which of course was not true, England was lost because the Pope refused to allow a divorce, not a marriage). From September to November of 1933 these arguments went on but the Church would not back down. One priest who had been a longstanding figure in Indochina offered to perform the marriage in what he called a personal capacity, but the legality of such a ceremony would have been dubious at best.
            By December of 1933 the Nguyen Huu Hao family finally agreed to allow their daughter to marry the Emperor in a civil ceremony, which were viewed as binding by the Church, but would require no dispensation since it was not a Church ceremony. The couple finally married in the Forbidden City in Hue on March 20, 1934. Yet, the problems did not end immediately. Some in the Catholic crowd of Vietnam were angry that there had been a civil rather than a Catholic wedding. The prominent Ngo Dinh Thuc and possibly the venerable Catholic official Nguyen Huu Bai claimed that such a marriage was little different than concubinage and was a disgrace to the French Mission. In fact, a partial excommunication was even leveled against the Nguyen Huu Hao family which caused quite a stir. The uncle of the new Empress, Le Phat An, one of the wealthiest men in southern Vietnam, was outraged at the excommunication and threatened to put a stop to his donations to the principal French Mission if it was not lifted. Whatever the reason, the Apostolic Delegate stepped in and lifted the excommunication.
            On March 24, 1934 Emperor Bao Dai raised his wife higher than any woman in Vietnamese history when he granted her the name and title of Her Majesty Nam Phuong (southern perfume), Empress of Vietnam. The people were, for the most part, overjoyed with their new queen consort and she enjoyed immense popularity. Her marriage, however, ultimately proved to be a less than happy one. Despite his earlier commitment to monogamy and abolishing the court harem, Emperor Bao Dai proved totally uninterested in being faithful to his wife. He even boasted about his numerous mistresses to foreign journalists. Nonetheless, Empress Nam Phuong did her best to be a good wife and a caring queen. She did her part to secure the succession when she gave birth to their first child, Crown Prince Bao Long, on January 4, 1936.
            There were other children which followed; Princess Phuong Mai in 1937, Princess Phuong Lien in 1938, Princess Phuong Dong in 1942 and Prince Bao Thang in 1943. Empress Nam Phuong was always present, as no other queen before her had been, in the life of her country. One of her favorite projects was serving as patroness of the Vietnamese Red Cross; she also accompanied her husband on official tours, some of her own and was an especially beloved symbol of the Catholic community in Vietnam. On June 18, 1945 she was further elevated from the style of "Her Majesty" to "Her Imperial Majesty" and after the end of World War II she served as a member of the Reconstruction Committee for Vietnam. However, when the Communist takeover led to the loss of the monarchy and social and political chaos, Nam Phuong left Vietnam and took her children to France.
            The infidelities of the Emperor had caused the two to grow considerably apart and eventually they lived totally separate lives, their marriage continuing in name only. Once in France, since Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated to the Communists, Nam Phuong was able to raise the children as Catholics, sending them to the best private schools. She attended to family affairs while the Emperor was busy dealing with the French and nationalist parties in the establishment of an anti-communist government in southern Vietnam. The Emperor did come to stay in France, but most of his time was spent away from his wife in various night spots enjoying a succession of French courtesans. Eventually a non-communist government, under the nominal leadership of Emperor Bao Dai was established with French backing in South Vietnam, but Empress Nam Phuong did not return. The Crown Prince offered to return to fight against the communist forces but was not allowed to do so for fear that he would be captured. She continued, however, to support her country from afar and through her contacts in the south.
            Eventually, the French forces were defeated and in 1955 Bao Dai was removed as head of state. Ngo Dinh Diem became the first President of the Republic of Vietnam. Empress Nam Phuong could, no doubt, have been of even greater service to her country in the troubled years to come of the American war in Vietnam, but her life was cut short. While traveling back from Brive to Chateau La Pesche she began to feel ill in her throat. The following day, September 18, 1963, assistants called for a doctor but before they could arrive the Empress suffocated to death. Further inspection led the doctors to believe the death had been the result of a case of angina. Empress Nam Phuong was buried in Chabrignac at the parish church. For a number of years that proved all too fleeting she brought a splash of hope, color and innocent compassion to a country on the edge of disaster. She touched many lives and was a most beloved flower to many of her people whose lives were uplifted by her helping hand.
Empress Nam Phuong with her children and the family confessor
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