The Princess of Miami

Aristocracy in Vietnam, she lives in a Collins Avenue condo and attends a synagogue

The Princess of Miami
Ivylise Simones
The princess and the mayor
Traffic on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was at a standstill. A few tired-looking drivers rolled down windows and craned their necks, trying to discern the reason for the delay. First came the Thai dancers, their satin costumes gleaming in the streetlights, fingers splayed, cheeks rouged, golden spires on their heads. They proceeded gracefully in measured steps, their heads fixed at a slight tilt, their smiles pasted on. Behind them a team of local kung fu students controlled a 60-foot Chinese dragon, running in circles to the beat of cymbals and gongs. They were led by a young girl with pigtails holding a large wooden lollipop.

Three Chinese lions followed, manned by dancers who pounced and crouched, angling their masks and winking long-lashed paper eyes. Finally, walking with stately demeanor, there were a few dozen patrons of the Bass Museum, most in their golden years, draped in fur pelts, diamonds — and in the case of a couple of men who got into the spirit of the event — embroidered Mandarin jackets. An Asian elephant named Judy plodded by sleepily, her eyes cast downward.

In the midst of the banging drums and scattered rose petals, a silver Jaguar convertible rolled slowly south. Sitting in the back waving like beauty queens were Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer and Her Imperial Highness, Princess Thi-Nga of Vietnam. Her sea-green gown evoked the drapery of ancient Greece. A necklace of thick jade beads was wound around her neck. From her back hung a gossamer cape.

Judy, Judy, Judy
Ivylise Simones
Judy, Judy, Judy


Through April 29 at the Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach. 305-673-7530. Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors/students. Free, members and children under six years old.

When the convoy approached the valet parking area of the Setai Hotel, two teenage girls gasped and hugged each other. "Ay, que lindo," they shrieked, jumping up and down.

The princess — like His Royal Highness Prince Jean Carl Pierre Marie d'Orléans of France, the Bragança family of Brazil, or Quentin Kawananakoa of Hawaii — is a member of a royal family that can no longer lay claim to a kingdom. She was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1964 and raised in exile in Europe. As a young girl, she was educated in the formal protocol of royal comportment. Tutors taught her the three dialects of Vietnamese and schooled her in the history of her ancestors. Now she lives near the Fontainebleau Hotel in a high-rise on Miami Beach, and has become a well-known socialite in Miami's philanthropic circles. She planned the parade to inaugurate an exhibition that features part of her extensive jade collection. It is now on display at the Bass Museum of Art, where she is chairwoman.

The day before the celebration Thi-Nga breakfasted at the Setai. She wore a fitted silk jacket and a necklace of black pearls. Her bearing was, well, regal. Her posture was excellent. She smiled discreetly. Her speech — sometimes Vietnamese-accented and sometimes French-accented — was always measured and soft. The maitre d' greeted her with, "Good morning, princess." She ordered a cappuccino and a plate of fresh fruit. Then, with prompting, she told the story of her great-great-great grandfather.

He was born Nguyen Phuc Anh in 1762. At the time, the Nguyen family (in Southeast Asia the family name precedes the personal name) was powerful. It controlled most of the southern half of what is today Vietnam and had been in a position of power since the 1400s. But when Phuc Anh was fourteen years old, his entire family was massacred in the peasant uprising known as the Tay Son rebellion. The only one to escape, Phuc Anh was whisked into hiding by loyal courtiers, and spent his teens under the protection of the King of Siam (now Thailand). In hiding, he plotted his revenge.

In the late 1700s, Phuc Anh sent his seven-year-old son to Versailles to cultivate an alliance with King Louis XVI. Later, armed by the French, the son waged war on the usurpers, regained power, and declared himself emperor in 1802. He changed his name from Nguyen to Gia Long. He named his country Vietnam, made vassal states of Laos and Cambodia, and moved the capital to the city of Hue (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

The Princess speaks of Imperial Vietnam — the height of her family's power — with great reverence. She nibbled daintily at her fruit plate, then recounted her history with the formal air of a recitation. The emperor's authority, she says, was based on a mandate from Heaven, which meant that "he has to represent the people in his best abilities toward God."

So the emperor's first gesture was to build his mausoleum — not the squat marble slabs of Western cemeteries, but ornate, expansive structures, which were, according to the Princess, a sign of humility. "The emperor lives in the palace, but it is only his temporary home," she clarified. "The mausoleum is his eternal resting place."

At the recollection of some thought, she smiled broadly. "Do you know why [Imperial Vietnamese] tea cups are always so small?" she asked. (A pair of jade cups in her collection are the size of thimbles.) The emperor would rise very early each morning, she explained, and walk to a tea house next to his mausoleum. There the emperor would meditate, compose his calendar, and write poetry, while his staff collected dew drops from lotus flowers to brew the majesty's tea.

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The story she told you of her youth sounds far fetched.  I went to school with 2 descendents of the royal family of Vietnam and they told me that they have never heard of her. My friends invite me to attend the Royal Family Organization reunion next March 2013 in Los Angeles. They have never seen or heard of her.

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