By chance, we met Mr Hoang No, a guard who used to accompany Emperor Bao Dai on hunting trips through the forests of the Central Highlands. Mr Hoang No is 90 years old now, living in Bo Trach district, Quang Binh Province.
Although he is now elderly, and life has changed for him, he has deep memories of these hunting trips, although sometimes he forgets the actual dates. However, his stories were fascinating and allowed us to find out so much about Emperor Bao Dai.
His lovely house is located on a small hill on Dao Duy Tu Street in Da Lat city, Lam Dong province. Mr Hoang No lost his father when he was 6-years old and he got married when he was 22 years old. At that time, he was captured and brought into the Citadel at Hue by French troops and became a member of the Imperial Army Division.
After 3 years of training and work in the palace, Mr No became an imperial bodyguard accompanying Emperor Bao Dai from Da Lat to Dak Lak and back again. Mr No had gone through a rigorous selection process and was selected as one of 52 specialist vigilante-cum-bodyguards to accompany the emperor on hunting trips into the jungle and down to the sea.
“Although I was a bodyguard of the Emperor Bao Dai, in fact, my work involved carrying a gun and standing guard from a distance of about 100 feet. We were not allowed near the Emperor unless asked to do so by him or his servants, or when he had shot an animal and we were asked to take it away” Mr No said.
According to Mr No, Emperor Bao Dai was passionate about hunting. If the emperor had any free time, he and his servants always went off hunting. But the emperor’s mother did not approve of his passion, especially when he shot deer to decorate the palace with their horns and skins.
Mr No continued his story: “When the emperor was in the palace in Nha Trang, if he wanted to go to Me Van forest in Dak Lak or visit Bao Loc to go hunting, the emperor often drove himself. On the way, the emperor would stop in a lush area of forest and here he would ride an elephant to go hunting while the servants put up the tents and gathered supplies.”
Mr No explained that Emperor Bao Dai was the13th and last the king of the Nguyen Dynasty, and he was a very good shot. When hunting, the emperor led the group, accompanied by the governor and a captain and also a commander of the Imperial Army, who were all excellent shots and it was their duty to protect the emperor if an animal tried to rush him. We were at the back
Mr No remembers that there was a huge variety of animals, especially, tigers, elephants and bulls in Dak Lak forest. Most of them were very big and weighed several tons, and were plentiful, not like nowadays when they are rare and small.
Mr No said “during the time that I served the emperor, he shot hundreds of tigers and he was very brave, unlike the locals who put up shrines to the tigers to ensure that they were not attacked by them.
Mr No continued “the emperor told us that shooting a tiger takes a lot of skill as you need to make sure you aim carefully if you want to put the skin on display. It doesn’t matter where you hit the tiger if you just want to eat it, but to display the animal you must make sure the bullet mark doesn’t show. We saw for ourselves that the tigers only ever had bullet wounds in the head.”
Do you remember the weight of tigers that the Emperor Bao Dai shot?
“He shot so many on each hunting trip, sometimes nearly a dozen in a day. We would go to where the tiger lay and it took around 6-7 strong soldiers to carry each one.”
As well as using tiger skins for rugs, did he or the governor ever eat them?
Mr No laughed and said that “tiger meat is not very tasty, so he never ate the meat. If he successfully killed a lot of tigers, they would be cooked on an open fire in the forest so that everybody on the hunt could taste it.”
On each hunting trip, the emperor’s entourage carried dozens of rifles with different functions and styles. The emperor used a suitable rifle according to the animal he was hunting, such as tiger, gaur and wild buffalo. Large animals required powerful rifles, but simple guns with small bullets were used to shoot wild chickens, peacocks and pheasants so that less damage was done. All the emperor’s hunting rifles were imported from France and were fine examples.
Mr No revealed that when the emperor had had a successful hunting day, he would often give away the birds and animals to the servants who accompanied him (between 50 and 100 depending on the length of the trip). “Hunting animals was the emperor’s entertainment. He was only interested in perfecting his shot rather than hunting animals for food.”
Mr No reminisced that “”the emperor was a very gentle man who enjoyed partying, hunting and dating beautiful women. Although the emperor did not have the intellect of earlier emperors, such as Thanh Thai or Duy Tan, he loved his people very much and they loved him. His life was never in danger, although it would have been easy to attack him as he was so often hunting in the forests.
Surprisingly, the emperor was also a keen angler, a skill very few people knew about. The emperor had villas in Vung Tau, Buon Me Thuat and Da Lat as well as palaces in Nha Trang and the Ho Lak region (Dak Lak). He enjoyed sea fishing off Nha Trang and freshwater fishing in Ho Lak, the largest freshwater lake in the Central Highlands.
We have visited the Emperor Bao Dai Palace in the coastal of Nha Trang city a couple of times. The palace is located in a prime position on top of a hill overlooking the sea. Below the palace is the Institute of Oceanography (formerly the Oceanic Museum) where thousands of specimens of rare marine species are kept. “The emperor often used dragon Huong Giang junk to go sea fishing as their boats were fine and safe and suitable for an emperor with an experienced crew to look after him and take him to the places they knew would have the most fish.”
Do you remember the biggest fish that the Emperor Bao Dai caught?
Once the emperor was fishing from a canoe and he caught a stingray which was so large a dozen people could have stood on it. His entourage began to panic, but the emperor was very calm and continued to hold the fishing line. Eventually he realised that it would be too difficult for him to land the stingray, so he cut the fishing line, but he was sad that he had to do this. He reminded his entourage that you have to be patient to be a fisherman and must always stay calm and never panic.
Mr No finished his story by saying that “the emperor taught us if you go fishing for fish as large as a stingray, if you reel in your fishing line too quickly, the fish will struggle to swim away and can cause a nasty accident. You must play with the fish to make it tired and then slowly reel in the fishing line. This was the emperor’s philosophy on life –when dealing with matters sometimes we need resolute actions, but sometime we must be flexible too. The skill is to know when to be resolute or flexible and then the outcome will always be successful.”