DALAT, Vietnam – In the city of Da Lat, popularly known as the “Little Paris” of Vietnam for its French colonial houses, the Phi Anh villa stands out among the rest for being the only one with a Spanish architectural style.
It is also famous for having been one of the favorite “love nests” of Bao Dai, the Southeast Asian country’s last emperor.
This elegant stone villa, often called “the Spanish home” by experts, was originally built for a French railway official in 1928, according to the Da Lat real estate management center, which also mentions the characteristically Spanish architecture in its description.
“One of the biggest differences in comparison to the rest of the villas of the city is that it has a larger roof, with a softer slope than the French ones,” Tran Cong Hoan, an architecture professor at Yersin Dalat University, told EFE.
Hoan highlighted the villa’s unpolished stone construction, low height, the shape of the chimney and the building’s unique overall design, with peculiarities such as a room that connects to two corridors.
Some tourist brochures describe the architecture as being derived from the traditional Basque style.
French architect Michel Berger corroborated this assertion after observing several photographs of the villa.
“It follows an Art Deco style of the years between 1925 to 1935; not in its modern variety but rather in the regional style. Some reminiscences could point toward a house inspired by the Basque style, particularly the arches,” Berger said.
While the villa’s Spanish architecture makes it a curiosity in itself, it is the love story that Bao Dai lived within its walls that has made it a legendary place for the Vietnamese.
The emperor bought it in 1950 as a gift for his favorite concubine, Phi Anh – whose portraits are still on display along with those of the emperor inside the house, which is currently a restaurant.
Born in 1913, Bao Dai was the last member of the Nguyen dynasty to rise to the imperial throne when he was crowned in 1926, following the death of his father.
His power, however, was always rather symbolic, as Indochina had been under French colonial rule since the end of the 19th century.
With the rise of national hero Ho Chi Minh during World War II in his fight for independence from France, Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 and spent four years in Hong Kong, France and mainland China until he was recalled by the French to take over the state’s leadership with the aim of winning the people’s favor and quelling the revolutionary upsurge.
Historical accounts describe Bao Dai as an unrepentant seducer, more interested in accumulating spouses and lovers, hunting and frequenting the opulent casinos of the French Rivera than carrying out the royal duties of his dynasty, which had reigned over Vietnam since 1802.
Despite being at the helm of the state between 1949-55, he lived a large part of the year in Da Lat, where he acquired the unique Spanish-style villa to house Phi Anh, a distant cousin who soon became the favorite out of his four concubines.
Although he owned his own palace in Da Lat, the emperor spent long hours in the mansion of his preferred lover, with whom he had a daughter and a son in the five years of their relationship.
With the country’s partition into two and the rise of a pro-United States government in South Vietnam, where he resided, Bao Dai was removed from his post and went into exile in France with his official consort. His concubines and their children were left behind.
Historian Nguyen Dac Xuan told Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre (“Youth”) daily that Phi Anh had to leave the villa after the victory of the Communist North Vietnamese forces in 1975, when it was converted into a collective home housing hundreds of people for the years following the conflict.
The emperor’s previous lover, now married to another man, lived in the old Saigon – now known as Ho Chi Minh City – until her death in 1986 aged 61.
Some 11 years later, Bao Dai died in France at the age of 83 without having been able to return to his home country or to the Spanish mansion where he lived his passion story.
He was survived by 11 children born out his relationships with five different women.