On the outskirts of the hilly Vietnamese city of Dalat is the most unexpected art deco delight. It’s one of those curvaceous beauties, architecturally speaking, with round windows and barrel shapes and bends. It is the Summer Palace of the last emperor of imperial Vietnam, Bao Dai.
The building is not exactly what you expect when you hear the word “palace” but it is certainly grand, especially if you arrive on motorcycle from a cheap hotel, as I did. And its appearance would be even more incongruous if Dalat had not already been styled and formed by the French colonialists when they chose it as the site for their holiday hill station.
The Summer Palace was built in the early 1930s by Bao Dai, who had five wives, including a French woman named Monique Baudot who still lives in Paris. The interior has not been altered since its use as a royal retreat (Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 and aligned himself with Ho Chi Minh), so it is a glimpse into a preserved mansion house with furniture and decorations intact. It’s not exactly a spectacular diversion for a traveller but it is an interesting example of Art Deco Southeast Asia. It’s also enlightening to observe the way that early twentieth century royalty lived before outside forces and civil war caused chaos in Vietnam.
But even more fascinating to me is the fact that some of the members of this family, including Bao Dai’s offspring, are still alive and we can gaze upon their family portraits and linger in their formerly private spaces. This is the kind of place where the history that we read about in books, and the present that we are all experiencing now, collide.