The Grand Tour: French Indochina

A history of French involvement in southeast Asia.

History Today | Published 08 February 2016

The year is 1860 and you are a French explorer and botanist, trekking through relentlessly hot and mosquito ridden jungle in northern Cambodia – a country you have found to be hopelessly undeveloped and unenlightened – when you come across a magnificent overgrown temple complex ‘grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome’. Henri Mouhot’s ‘discovery’ of the temples of Angkor (in reality, the ruins were never really lost) is the stuff of boy’s adventure stories; 70 years later, a reconstruction of Angkor Wat would prove the highpoint of the predictably romantic Colonial Exhibition held in Paris, a celebration of France’s colonial conquests including its colonies and protectorates in French Indochina. 

French Indochina covered the region that today comprises Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1887 until the French evacuation from Vietnam in 1954. During this period, France united the regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (centre) and Cochinchina (south) as Vietnam, and established protectorates over Cambodia and what is now Laos. The colony fell under Japanese occupation during the Second World War and was finally finished by the Indochinese Wars with the Viet Minh. Writing at the height of the Indochinese War in 1949, the travel writer Norman Lewis described French occupation of Vietnam, based in Saigon, as resembling 'a small squid-like body which thrusts out groping tentacles into a vast no-man's land'.

The legacies of French Indochina would arguably include both the Vietnam War and the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s. Explore the key moments from the region’s history on our interactive map above. 

Concept and research by Rhys Griffiths, map built by Dean Nicholas using StoryMapJS.