The Last Emperor

Today is our last day in Vietnam. We started in the south in Saigon, traveled through central Vietnam, to end our 1 month stay in the capital of Hanoi. A month is hardly long enough to grasp the history of any country, let alone one with such a long and tortured past. I struggle to retain the name of each emperor, their successes and failures. The last emperor of Vietnam was Bao Dai. His journey was, to some extent, a mirror to our own.

North and South

Vietnam is a long narrow country: 1,650 kilometers long and only 50 kilometers wide. Its eastern border hugs the ocean. Depending on who you are, you might call it the East Vietnam Sea or the South China Sea. To the west loom the mountains of the Annamite Range. Hidden inside its valleys and jungles are some of the 53 ethnic minority groups that inhabit Vietnam, together with the Kinh majority.

Hải Vân Pass
View from Hải Vân Pass. Photo credit: Karen Kao

For much of its history, Vietnam has existed in fractured form. The Hải Vân Pass is a 21 kilometer mountain pass north of Da Nang. For centuries, it was the only way to cross from north to south. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 221 AD), Hải Vân Pass marked the southern border of China. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Hải Vân Pass served as the border between the northern kingdom of the Dai Viet and the southern kingdom of the Champa.

We take the Hải Vân Pass on our way to the old imperial capital of Huế. The view from the top is supposed to be spectacular but on the day we arrive, the air is misty. We clamber to the top of a ridge to see the gate the Chinese left to mark their territory. Then we get back into the car and hurry on to Huế.

A New Dynasty

Huế was the capital of Emperor Gia Long. He was the first emperor in 1802 to control both north and south Vietnam. Gia Long moved the imperial capital from Hanoi in the north to Hue in central Vietnam to underline this point. Gia Long is the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Imperial citadel Hue

Imperial Citadel at Hue. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The imperial citadel at Huế is a huge complex on the shores of the Perfume River. Emperor Gia Long clearly modeled his new palace on the Forbidden City in Beijing. There are elephant gates, ceremonial courtyards and residences for concubines, even a library for the exclusive use of the emperor.

Gia Long relied on the assistance of French advisors but his successor, Emperor Minh Mang, wanted the Westerners out of Vietnam. He dismissed his father’s advisers and executed French missionaries and their converts. The French responded by invading Vietnam. By 1862, Vietnam was divided once more with the south ceded to France. In 1883, France annexed the rest, adding Vietnam to its other protectorates in Laos and Cambodia to create Indochina.

Playboy Emperor

Leg shackles in Hoa Lo Prison. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The National History Museum in Hanoi recounts the long struggle for independence. Today, the Vietnamese people call them patriots and revolutionaries.

There is no better place to witness their sacrifice than Hoa Lo Prison. Constructed in 1896, the French used this site to house political prisoners. They were shackled by the ankle to a long wooden platform, held in solitary confinement or guillotined. Many years later, this same prison would acquire a new nickname. American pilots shot down during the Vietnam War would call it Hanoi Hilton.

But while all this struggle was taking place among the people of Vietnam, their emperor was amusing himself in Huế. Khai Dinh was the penultimate emperor of Vietnam. He ruled from 1916-1925. An exhibit at the Imperial Citadel in Huế describes him as

a decorous but spiritless person. He liked a relaxed, peaceful life. During Khai Dinh reign, all power was held by the French. The emperor himself also wanted to restore the court’s principles in order to keep national prestige but he couldn’t change anything because of his weak nature.

Hue Monuments Conservation Centre
Emperor Bao Dai
The last emperor of Vietnam

By contrast, the last emperor Bao Dai didn’t even care to restore his country’s autonomy. He preferred sports, hunting and dance. The last emperor of Vietnam makes a cameo appearance inThe Book of Salt. He and Prince Norodom of Cambodia amuse themselves in Paris. They compete for the best jewels and the latest trend.

The Emperor of Vietnam is first only when women or gambling are involved. Only nineteen, and yet the Emperor keeps a notebook with the names of all the women whom he has bedded. He likes to name his racing horses after them.

Monique Truong, The Book of Salt

A New Emperor

On 30 August 1945, Emperor Bao Dai relinquished his sword and seal, the symbols of his imperial power, to a delegation of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. That is, to a new government headed by President Ho Chi Minh.

The French, however, did not recognize this new nation of Vietnam with or without an emperor. They fought to retain their colony. French soldiers soon renamed the Hải Vân Pass the Street without Joy. For this road could lead only to war devastation in Da Nang or Hue.

The Geneva Accords of 1954 ended the First Indochina War but at a high price. Until elections could be held, North Vietnam would be controlled by Ho Chi Minh while Emperor Bao Dai would be reinstated as titular head of South Vietnam. The 17th parallel was the new border.

Then came the fateful decision in 1959 by Ho Chi Minh’s Lao Dong (Worker’s Party). In order to build a socialist state, North Vietnam must be reunited with the south. That meant war. Not only with the South but soon with the United States as well. American military advisors were already on the ground. Troops soon followed.

The Battle of Huế was the longest and bloodiest conflict of the Vietnam War. It started on 30 Jan 1968 with the Tet Offensive and ended on 3 Mar 1968. It cost the South Vietnamese and their US allies 18 battalions to defeat 11 battalions of the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam. Huế was an important supply over the Hải Vân Pass and via the Perfume River. It was also close to the DMZ, 50 km to the north. The losses incurred by the US (668 dead and 3,707 wounded) formed a turning point in international public support for the war. Meanwhile, the communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000 soldiers.

Ho Chi Minh
Uncle Ho at the National History Museum in Hanoi. Photo credit: Karen Kao

North Vietnam eventually succeeded in unifying Vietnam as emperor Gia Long had done two centuries earlier. But Ho Chi Minh did not live to see it. He died in 1969. Yet he’s as popular as ever.

You’ll see his face beaming down at you from virtually every corner of Hanoi. They call him Uncle Ho, perhaps the last true emperor of Vietnam.

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