by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
In the last days of October, newspapers announced the auction of two gold treasures, King Ming Mạng's Seal and King Khải Định's bowl, which caught both government interest and public curiosity.
In some ways, this mirrored news about an auction related to another King of the Nguyễn Dynasty, Hàm Nghi, in France back in 2010. It was an event covered by a contributor to this newspaper who recently passed away, Mathilde Deschamps.
Hàm Nghi (1871-1944) was crowned at 13 years of age. He was supported by the two regents Nguyễn Văn Tường and Tôn Thất Thuyết, who initiated a campaign to resist French rule on the Nguyễn Royal Court. But the coup failed in 1885, and Hàm Nghi had to flee the capital city of Huế into the woods with his advisors, aides, and entourage.
Tôn Thất Thuyết issued a Royal Appeal supporting the King to fight French colonialists, which lasted for three years until 1888, when King Hàm Nghi, 16, was arrested. He was then forced into exile in Algiers, Algeria. He later married a French woman and became an artist, yet still always wore traditional costume.
The exiled king later died there and never got a chance to revisit his home. Under enormous French pressure, the succeeding Nguyễn king did not recognise his tomb as one of the Nguyễn kings.
But in the hearts of the Vietnamese populace, he was one of three kings of the Nguyễn Dynasty who opposed French rule.
The auction mentioned put one of King Hàm Nghi's paintings, Twilight in El Biar, up for sale, and the contributor of this newspaper Mathilde Deschamps (pen name), born Trần Thị Tuyết in Việt Nam, assisted the People's Committee of Huế to bid for the painting to be brought to Việt Nam.
The bid failed due to limited financial resources as the price shot up with a secret bidder on the phone. Mathilde Deschamps went on to write for the Việt Nam News for over a decade, providing our readers with stories from economic analysis and the root-finding trips to her mother's home town in the north of Việt Nam, to her effort to bring a mango tree to grow in her garden in a Paris suburb to how to cook a traditional French gourmet dish for Christmas.
Every year, she would travel to French libraries and overseas archives to look for original documents vital to the history of Việt Nam with continuous and wholehearted support from her husband, Pierre Deschamps.
Not only were they both keen on keeping the Vietnamese traditions in France, but they also revived an old French bread furnace in the garden of their home, thus bringing back to life a French cultural gem by baking bread in their yard.
Mathilde Tuyết Trần published three books in France: Từ Lũng Cú đến Cà Mau (Việt Nam: from Lũng Cú to Cà Mau peninsula), Việt Bắc một mùa xuân (A Spring in Việt Bắc), and her last book about King Duy Tân.
Sadly, she could not see the final book's official launch.
Mathilde Tuyết Trần passed away on October 26 and was put to final rest at her husband's home cemetery in France on October 31 this year. She's survived by her husband, three grown-up children from a previous marriage, and four grandchildren.
If it weren't for our common Vietnamese cultural heritage, we would never have met, let alone corresponded for 12 years.
She lived in Sài Gòn in the 1970s, and was among the elite students sent to study in West Germany with a plan to come back to build the country.
Her life did not turn out as expected after she married and had children. But during the later years of her life, she dedicated herself to patching up pieces of Việt Nam's history, and creating a patriotic profile of King Duy Tân. Her compassion for people she met during her travels in Việt Nam, which lasted for months at times, brought her a wide and supportive circle of friends and colleagues.
She had many family problems that caused her much pain, but her husband was always there to help and provide a shoulder to cry on through these ordeals.
When the latest auction came up, we could no longer rely on her contributions, analysis, and in-depth understanding, as she has already quit to fight a long battle with breast cancer. May her soul rest in peace.
With her unceasing love for Việt Nam and its heritage and culture, she would have been pleased with the good news surrounding the Royal Seal that was supposed to be auctioned recently. It is set to be repatriated to Việt Nam imminently. VNS