Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born on 14 December 1914 as the daughter of Pierre Nguyễn Hữu-Hào and Marie Lê Thị Binh. She was born in Gò Công which was then in the French colony of Cochinchina, and so Marie-Thérèse was a naturalised French citizen. She was known by her friends and family as Mariette. From the age of 12, she studied at the Couvent des Oiseaux in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
On 9 March 1934, her engagement to her distant cousin Bảo Đại, Emperor of Vietnam was announced. The New York Times reported, “Emperor Bao Dai, youthful Europeanised monarch of Annam, has chosen a commoner for a bride. His engagement to Miss Yuen Hu Hao, daughter of a wealthy Cochin-Chinese family, was announced today. The wedding will be on March 20.”1 The following day, Bảo Đại said of his future wife, “The future Queen, reared like us in France, combines in her person the graces of the West and the charms of the East. We who have had occasion to meet her believe that she is worthy to be our companion and our equal. We are certain by her conduct and example that she fully merits the title of First Woman of the Empire.”2
Of the four-day wedding ceremony, the New York Times wrote, “Pretty 18-year-old N’Guyen Huu Hao, a commoner from the neighbouring Cochin-China, became the bride of the youthful Emperor Bao Dai of Annam today. The Buddhist ritual was part of the four-day wedding ceremony. Only a small part was witnessed by the public, the rest taking place behind closely guarded doors in strictest family and official secrecy. N’Guyen Huu Hao, reared a Catholic, was educated in a French convent, and many subjects of the 21-year-old ruler grumbled because Bao Dai took a wife from outside their own faith.
As the marriage program began behind the walls of the royal palace, the exact religious status of N’Guyen Huu Hao – called Mariette in France – could not be ascertained. Last week it was announced that she intended to renounce Catholicism and embrace Buddhism upon becoming Queen of Annam, which is a part of French Indo-China. Yesterday, when she arrived here, reports from the Vatican said the necessary dispensations had apparently been granted to permit her to marry as a Catholic.
Palace censorship, however, cloaked the religious angle and most other details of the ceremony. N’Guyen Huu Hao, who will receive her final investiture as Queen on Saturday, is a slim striking girl, a member of a wealthy Cochin-China family, which has furnished martyrs to the cause of Catholicism for many generations.
In accordance with Oriental tradition, she was kept from the gaze of the Emperor until the start of the ceremony today. The highest mandarin commanding the citadel led the procession on horseback and dressed in full military uniform. The procession moved slowly from the guests’ palace to the royal palace while artillery salutes boomed. The bride was escorted by Princesses of the royal family and wives of the chief mandarins, all of them wearing rich, brocaded ceremonial robes and blue turbans.”3
After the wedding, she was given the title of Imperial Princess and the name Nam Phương, which can be translated as “Fragrance of the South.” They went on to have five children together: Crown Prince Bảo Long (born 4 January 1936), Princess Phương Mai (born 1 August 1937), Princess Phương Liên (born 3 November 1938), Princess Phương Dung (born 5 February 1942) and Prince Bảo Thắng (born 30 September 1944). Her husband also had six other wives and concubines, but Marie-Thérèse remained his principal wife.
In 1945, her husband proclaimed the country’s independence from France and assumed the title of Emperor. He raised her to the rank of Empress with the style of Imperial Majesty. However, following the Second World War and the Japanese surrender, the revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh persuaded her husband to abdicate and to hand over power to the Việt Minh. Her husband was appointed “supreme advisor” to Hồ Chí Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but he was ousted the following year. He was able to return as “Chief of State of Vietnam” in 1949, only to be ousted again in 1955.
Marie-Thérèse and her children moved to France in 1947, and her children were educated at the same school that she had attended. She separated from her husband in 1955. The last Empress of Vietnam died on 16 September 1963 from a heart attack at her home in Chabrignac, France. She was still only 48 years old. She was buried in the local cemetery. Her husband survived her for 34 years – dying on 30 July 1997. Her eldest son became Head of the Imperial Family in exile, but he died childless in 2007. Her younger son took over the position upon his brother’s death, but he too died childless in 2017. The son of Emperor Bảo Đại and the concubine Lê Thị Phi Ánh, Bảo Ân, is the current head of the family.