The royal regalia of Vietnam is, naturally, quite different from what most westerners would be familiar with, yet there are elements almost any monarchist would easily recognize. The Vietnamese did not have a “crown” in the way westerners would understand it (the crown becoming a very Christian symbol) though there was an elaborate headdress which could be referred to as such. The official costume of the emperors was elaborate and overflowing with symbolism unique to the Vietnamese culture. During the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty the ceremonial costumes of the court were greatly influenced by the historic fashions of the Ming Empire. For the emperor, of course, there was an elaborate robe with very deep sleeves, covered with auspicious symbols but all over a background color of “brilliant yellow” which was reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor. At a time when most people went barefoot the imperial costume included an elaborate pair of high-topped boots. The brilliant yellow imperial robe was fastened by a jade-encrusted cummerbund and the Emperor would wear a special cap (or crown) decorated with nine golden dragons, nine being the imperial number, the closest to 10; the heavenly number. The Emperor would also hold a special jade scepter (also sometimes referred to as a baton) to symbolize his authority.
In full formal attire
There was, of course, no actual “coronation” in Vietnamese tradition but the formal enthronement served the same purpose. The new emperor would be given an ivory badge which would be worn on the right side of his robe that gave him access to the Golden Book where, at the start of his reign, his name would be officially recorded. The Emperor would then proceed to the Temple of the Ancestors to swear his oath of office at the altar of Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen Dynasty. The following morning the new Emperor would be seated on the Golden Dragon Throne in the Palace of Supreme Peace to receive the sign of loyalty of his people. There was an elaborately decorated “sword of state” that most would find familiar, symbolizing the duty of the Emperor to protect his people. The most significant piece of royal regalia was the imperial seal. There would be one primary seal and several smaller seals for more casual use. It was the imperial seal which represented the authority of the Emperor, it attached an almost sacred significance to any document on which it was used. During high festivals the imperial seals would be symbolically “hidden” to stop time for the celebrations.
The original seal used by the Nguyen Dynasty came from the Great Qing Empire in Peking along with the recognition by the Manchu Dynasty of the Nguyen right to rule Vietnam. As with many neighboring countries, China and Vietnam had a relationship whereby the Vietnamese recognized the senior position of Imperial China, and would call on China for help if attacked by an outside force, while Vietnam remained independent and self-governing. For the sake of peaceful relations, the rulers of Vietnam would deal with Peking as “kings” while dealing with their own people as “emperors”. This all changed, however, when the French arrived and when conflict broke out the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc called on the Qing Empire for help. The resulting Sino-French War saw China defeated and, as a result, to symbolize who the new power was in the neighborhood, the French confiscated and destroyed the original imperial seal granted by the Qing court at the start of the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty. They replaced it with another of course, of traditional design, to symbolize that France was the new protecting power or feudal overlord to put it another way.
Handing over the Seal and Sword
It was this seal, along with the imperial sword, that Emperor Bao Dai handed over in 1945 at the height of the August Revolution to the representatives of the new provisional republican government when he abdicated. In 1952, during the First Indochina War, when the French attacked Hanoi the republican government buried the sword and seal at the sight of a government office before fleeing the city. The French dug up the sword which had been broken into three pieces and handed these over to the Empress Dowager Tu Cung, the Emperor’s mother. She later, it is believed, handed these over to one of the imperial concubines, Mong Diep. The imperial seal was handed over to the Museum of History but was later stolen. In 1953 the former Emperor Bao Dai, who was then “Chief of State” entrusted the seal to his concubine Mong Diep who took it to France and presented it to the Empress Nam Phuong and the Prince Imperiale Bao Long. In 1982 the Prince Imperiale handed the seal back to his father. Since that time, there has been no word as to its whereabouts.