From 1802, the country -- which was known variously as Vietnam and Annam, depending on who controlled it -- had been a Chinese tributary state ruled by emperors. That title had been diminished to king, however, by the French government, which took control of the region in the late 19th century and split it into three areas: the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin and the colony of Cochinchina. The Nguyễn Dynasty was given nominal rule of Annam.
At the age of nine, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy was sent to France to be educated at the lycée Condorcet and, later, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. In 1926, he became king following his father's death and took the name Bảo Đại. He did not ascend to the throne due to his age and returned to France to continue his studies. He was subject to control by the French of his government, Annam at that time being part of the Union of French Indochina. Throughout the 20th century, Bảo Đại was widely perceived to be a puppet ruler for French colonial interests.
Bảo Đại had four other wives, three of whom he wed during his marriage to Nam Phương:
The Japanese promised not to interfere with the court at Huế, but in 1945 coerced Bảo Đại into declaring Vietnamese independence from France as a member of Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere"; the country then became the Empire of Vietnam. The Japanese had a Vietnamese pretender, Prince Cường Để, waiting to take power in case the new emperor's "elimination" was required. Japan surrendered to the Allies in August of 1945, and the Việt Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh aimed to take power in a free Vietnam. Due to his recent Japanese associations, Hồ was able to persuade Bảo Đại to abdicate on 25 August, 1945, handing power over to the Việt Minh — an event which greatly enhanced Hồ's legitimacy in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. Bảo Đại was appointed "supreme advisor" to the new government in Hanoi, which asserted its independence on 2 September.
As Vietnam descended into armed conflict — rival Vietnamese factions clashing with each other and also with the remaining French — Bảo Đại left Vietnam after a year in his "advisory" role, living in both Hong Kong and China. The French persuaded him to return in 1949 to serve in a figurehead capacity for the new post-war order envisioned by the former colonial powers and under the auspices of the newly established set of international institutions, known as the United Nations, but as "Head of State" (Quoc Truong), not as "Emperor" (Hoàng Đế). He soon returned to France, however, and showed little interest in the affairs of his mother country when his own personal interests were not directly involved. But the war between the French colonial forces and the Việt Minh continued, ending in 1954 shortly after a major victory for the Việt Minh at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ.
The United States, nervous about Hồ Chí Minh's communism, became strongly opposed to the idea of a Vietnam run by Hồ after his government of the northern region of traditional Vietnam, called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in 1950 gained diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union and newly victorious Chinese government of Chairman Mao. In the south of traditional Vietnam in that same year, France formed a rival Vietnamese government under Bảo Đại in Saigon which was recognized by the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations.
The 1954 peace deal between the French and the Việt Minh, known as the Geneva Accords, involved a Chinese-inspired, supposedly temporary partition of the country into "Northern" and "Southern" Vietnamese administrations. Bảo Đại moved to Paris, France, but remained "Head of State" of South Vietnam, appointing the Roman Catholic nationalist, Ngô Đình Diệm, as his Prime Minister.
However, in 1955, Diệm used a referendum to remove Bảo Đại and form a republic, taking control of the South himself, while managing to win U.S. government support. The referendum was widely regarded as fraudulent, showing an alleged ninety-eight percent in favour of Diệm. Bảo Đại abdicated once again and remained in exile for the remainder of his life in Paris, France.
Bao Dai still held great influence among local political figures in the Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên-Huế provinces and also in the city of Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The Communist government of North Vietnam sent representatives to France hoping that Bảo Đại would become a member of a coalition government which might reunite Vietnam, in the hope of attracting his supporters in the regions wherein he still held influence.
As a result of these meetings, Bảo Đại publicly spoke out against the presence of American troops on the territory of South Vietnam, and he also criticized President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's regime in South Vietnam. He called for all political factions to create a free, neutral, peace-loving government which would resolve the tense situation that had taken form in the country.
In 1982, Bảo Đại, his wife, Vĩnh Thụy, and other members of the former imperial family of Vietnam visited the United States. His agenda was to oversee and bless Buddhist and Caodaiist religious ceremonies, in the Californian and Texan Vietnamese-American communities.
While in the United States, Emperor Bảo Đại gauged opinion among the exiled Vietnamese-American community, hoping to find a route towards national reconciliation.
After his death, his eldest son Crown Prince Bao Long inherited the position of head of the Nguyễn Dynasty.
Emperor Bảo Đại was portrayed by the actor Huynh Anh Tuan in the 2004 Vietnamese miniseries "Ngon Nen Hoang Cung" ("A Candle in the Royal Palace").