A mediocre student, Madame Nhu dropped out of Lycée Albert Sarraut, a prestigious French school. She spoke French at home and could not write in Vietnamese; as an adult, she drafted her speeches in French and had them translated into Vietnamese. She gained a reputation in her youth as a tomboy who loved ballet and piano, once dancing solo at Hanoi's National Theatre. She had an older sister and a younger brother and was known for beating him up in their childhood.
When she became an adult, her mother introduced her to a series of eligible young men, but she insisted on Nhu. He was twice her age and referred to her as "little niece" in accordance with Vietnamese custom. In 1943, she married Nhu and converted from Mahayana Buddhism to Roman Catholicism, her husband's religion. After an uprising by the Vietminh in December 1946, her brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Khoi was buried alive, and Nhu and another brother, Ngo Dinh Can, were forced to flee. Madame Nhu, her mother-in-law and her eldest daughter, at the time a baby, were captured. Thinking that her piano was a radio for communicating with French colonialists, the Vietminh blew it up and then exiled her to a remote village for four months, where she was forced to live on two bowls of rice a day. The French dismissed Nhu from his post at the National Library due to Diem’s nationalist activities, and he moved to Da Lat and lived comfortably, editing a newspaper, where his wife bore three more children.
A referendum was scheduled for October 23, 1955 to determine the future direction of the south. It was contested by Bao Dai, the Emperor, advocating the restoration of the monarchy, while Diem ran on a republican platform. The elections were held, with Nhu and the family's Can Lao Party, which supplied Diem's electoral base, organising and supervising the elections. Campaigning for Bao Dai was prohibited, and the result was rigged, with Bao Dai's supporters attacked by Nhu's workers. Diem recorded 98.2% of the vote, including 605,025 votes in Saigon, where only 450,000 voters were registered. Diem's tally also exceeded the registration numbers in other districts.
Her family also received further scorn since her sister, Le Chi, had a French lover, and critics alleged that Madame Nhu introduced the laws so that her sister's husband could not get a divorce. Since he was extremely wealthy, the Ngo family would have lost highly valuable assets. In addition, her brother Khiem used the government connections to bilk rich entrepreneurs.
Diem had stated before becoming President: "The history of China bears witness to the grave crises brought on by the empresses and their relatives". In Madame Nhu, Diem had a first lady who was a part of the period of decay leading up to his downfall. According to A. J. Langguth, she exerted influence with her fiery attitude, often abusing Diem and Nhu, who bowed to her angry tirades. Madame Nhu was sometimes called the "Dragon Lady". She had a message to Diem opponents, noting that "We will track down, neutralize and extirpate all these scabby sheep.
She often caused controversy because of her strong anti-Buddhist, pro-Catholic ideology. When she heard that Diem was to sign a statement offering compensation to the families of Buddhist protestors shot by the police of his brother Ngo Dinh Can, Madame Nhu was reported to have thrown a bowl of soup at him. Notably she mocked the protest by Thích Quảng Đức, who performed a self-immolation in a crowded Saigon street in response to the shooting of Buddhists by Diem's regime. Madame Nhu called it a "barbecue" and stating "let them burn and we shall clap our hands". Her parents disowned her because of her role in the persecution of Buddhists, with her father resigning as ambassador to the United States and criticising her brother-in-law's regime. This occurred after special forces loyal to Nhu raided the Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon in August. The pagoda was vandalised, monks beaten, the cremated remains of Thích Quảng Đức, which included a heart which had not disintegrated, were confiscated. Simultaneous raids were carried out across the country, with the Tu Dam Pagoda in Huế being looted, the statue of Gautama Buddha demolished, and a body of a deceased monk stolen. When the populace came to the defence of the monks, the resulting clashes saw 30 civilians killed and 200 wounded. Through her paramilitary organisation, Madame Nhu claimed that the Buddhists were "controlled by communism" and that they were manipulated by the Americans, calling on Diem to "expel all foreign agitators whether they wear monks' robes or not". When William Trueheart warned that aid might be withheld if the repression orchestrated by the Nhus continued, Madame Nhu denounced it as "blackmail". Nhu and Diem, fearing a cut in aid, sent Madame Nhu to the United States on a speaking tour. She denounced American liberals as "worse than communists" and Buddhists as "hooligans in robes". Her father did not share the same beliefs and followed her around the country, denouncing the "injustice and oppression" and stating that his daughter had "become unwittingly the greatest asset to the communists." Madame Nhu also defiantly predicted that Buddhism would become extinct in Vietnam.
In the wake of the tumultuous events, Madame Nhu appeared on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" on October 13, 1963, defending her actions and those of the South Vietnamese government. "I don't know why you Americans dislike us," she said. "Is it because the world is under a spell called liberalism? Your own public, here in America, is not as anti-Communistic as ours is in Vietnam. Americans talk about my husband and I leaving our native land permanently. Why should we do this? Where would we go? To say that 70 percent of my country's population is Buddhistic is absolutely true. My father, who was our Ambassador to the United States until two months ago, has been against me since my childhood."
On November 1, 1963 her brother-in-law, President Ngô Đình Diệm, and her husband, Ngô Đình Nhu, were assassinated in a coup d'état led by General Dương Văn Minh with the understanding that the United States would not intervene. At the time of the assassinations, Madame Nhu had been in Beverly Hills, California since October, with her daughter Ngô Dinh Le Thuy. When she learned of the coup d'état, she immediately suspected the United States, saying "Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies." She went on to predict a bleak future for Vietnam and said that, by being involved in the coup, the troubles of the United States in Vietnam were just beginning.
The military government of Vietnam under General Dương Văn Minh confiscated all of the property in Saigon that belonged to Madame Nhu and her family, and she was not allowed to return to South Vietnam. She went to Rome briefly before moving permanently to France with her children. Her daughter Le Thuy died in 1967, at age 22, in an automobile accident in Longjumeau, France.
In 1964, she attempted to get a visa to re-enter South Vietnam on security grounds from the United States Department of State, but it was denied.
On November 2, 1986, Madame Nhu charged the United States for hounding her family during the arrest of her younger brother, Tran Van Khiem, who was charged in the strangling deaths of their parents, Tran Van Chuong and Nam Tran Chuong in their Washington D.C. home.
In the 1990s, the former first lady of South Vietnam was reportedly living on the French Riviera and charging the press for interviews. She has been listed in biographical publications as recently as 2001.
In 2002, Madame Nhu gave an interview to the journalist Truong Phu Thu of Dân Chúa Mỹ Châu, a magazine published for the Vietnamese Catholic community. It was published in October 2004. The article states that she is living in Paris and that she is working on her memoirs.
In the early 1960s, Madame Nhu popularized a tight-fitting version of the traditional Áo dài (long dress) that was considered controversial in its day, due to its tight fit and low-cut neckline. According to a scholar of Vietnamese visual arts, "To foreigners, this collar made sense, given the tropical conditions, but conservatives saw it as too suggestive for Vietnamese women."
Speculating on US involvement in the assassinations of her husband and brother-in-law:
Empress Nam Phuong
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