The last courtier

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Tran Thi Vui's mother named her "joy" in the hopes that she would have a happy life.

The name didn't stick, she says. Not for most of her life.

Today, the 80-year-old woman claims that she can only remember a brief period when the name suited her disposition.

At the age of 16, she moved to Hue to become a royal palace maid under the Nguyen Dynasty the last of Vietnam's feudal houses.

The job was a dream come true, she says.

A tough place to come of age

According to cultural researcher Ho Tan Phan, Vietnam's last imperial court was a demanding place for a young virgin girl.

Evey member of the royal court played a role in the strict royal hierarchy, which ran from the emperor down to the last eunuch.

Palace maids served as fanners, hair dressers and tasted food, to prevent regicide.

Each job carried a distinct social rank: those who massaged royal backs were considered more distinguished than those who rubbed the royal feet.

"They had to labor day and night to serve all the members of the family whose demands were extremely exacting," Phan said.

The kitchen maids maintained 85 different dishes. Others oversaw complicated tea ceremonies. Still others helped dress and undress the royal family members.

The maids were strictly prohibited from speaking about life inside the court beyond the palace walls.

Every girl's dream


A royal princess of the Nguyen Dynasty is fanned by her palace maids in a photo taken in 1931. Photo courtesy of W. Robert Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis.

For Vui, being a palace maid was a dream come true. She didn't have to worry about earning a living or working the fields, like most other girls her age.

"Not everyone qualified to work as a palace woman," said Vui, the sole surviving member of the Nguyen Dynasty's imperial entourage. "The positions were reserved for those with royal blood."

Vui was born following an elicit affair between courtiers.

Her mother was a distant relative of Prince Dien Quoc Cong who fell in love with the nephew of an imperial concubine. Because of their transgression, marriage was prohibited.

Vui's mother was sent out of the palace to give birth. Vui was born and raised in her mother's hometown, La Y Village, Phu Vang District of the province of Thua Thien-Hue.

At the age of 16, Vui was chosen to serve Tu Cung, the mother of Vietnam's last monarch, Emperor Bao Dai, as a fanner and masseuse.

During the latter days of its rule, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) served as something of a figurehead for foreign occupation.

Following the Viet Minh victory over the Japanese in 1945, Emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne and handed his power to the new government.

He returned in 1949 to serve as head of state for the French-backed puppet government until he was ousted by Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955.

Remembering the last emperor Vui came to the palace long before it began to unravel.

"Being a palace maid was the happiest time in my life," Vui said who still remembers the emperor fondly.

According to Vui, Bao Dai was a modern man who asked visitors not to kneel down before him. Breaking with tradition, he shook hands with his foreign visitors and abolished the system of royal concubines.

Vui also remembered the king as a notorious nosher. She says a wide array of traditional cakes were always kept on hand to sate his cravings.

In 1934, the king married Marie Thérèse Nguyen Huu Thi Lan and inaugurated her as empress Nam Phuong.

"The emperor was kind-hearted and accommodating," Vui said. "He didn't scold us for fanning too strongly and blowing his hair into his eyes. Only when the empress wrinkled her brow did we know to slow things down."

Historians note that Bao Dai maintained wives and girlfriends outside of the royal court. But, according to Vui, he truly loved the empress.

"I don't know what his marriage was really like, but Empress Nam Phuong was his only wife in the palace," Vui said.

Mother dearest

The royal couple left Hue's Forbidden City (the imperial court), every day to visit his mother at nearby Dien Tho Palace.

During these trips, Vui recalled that the empress always walked behind her husband, Vui recalled.

When the emperor arrived at the palace gate, he stopped to allow his wife to catch up with him so that he could hug and kiss her.

When they entered Dien Tho Palace, the two entered holding one another's hand.

Vui recalls that the emperor's mother wasn't nearly as relaxed about tradition.

She was particularly exacting about her meals.

Only royal maids were allowed to prepare her meals, Vui said. Each dish had to be tasted (for poison).

Each meal was presented in a three-tiered container, loaded up as if for a feast.

The king's mother usually touched the food with her chopsticks and then asked her servants to take everything away.

Cold on the outside

When Vui reached the age of 22, the outside world called to her.

She asked permission to leave the court to return to her hometown to seek a husband. It was granted.

Vui married a local farmer and gave birth to a little girl. During her first year of life, their child died and Vui could bear no more offspring.

Vui says that her infertility prompted her husband to take another wife, with whom he had five children.

Even after her husband passed away, the former palace maid continued to live with his second wife and their children to this day.

She now lives in an old three-room house on Chi Lang Street the last remaining royal courtier of a long-lost era.

Phan argues that Vui could serve as something of a historical ambassador to Vietnam's imperial past and suggests that local tourism officials invite Vui to participate in the Dem hoang cung (Night in the royal palace) biennial Hue Festival.

In the past, young female students have been dressed in the former palace maid uniform and been employed as historical re-enactors during the event, held mostly in summer.

Phan argues that the town should consider bringing in a living piece of history to prepare tea for visitors and tell stories of Vietnam's last emperor.

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