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What does Indochina mean?

| Words by Rachel McCombie | , ,

One of the questions we’re sometimes asked is where the “Indochina” part of our name comes from. The answer involves delving into the history books, so we thought it worthy of its own blog post.

map of IndochinaThe "Indochinese Peninsula" that encompassed modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

The term “Indochina” is used to denote a particular part of Southeast Asia, specifically the “Indochinese Peninsula”, which is occupied by the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Bordered by Thailand and Burma on one side, and China and the South China Sea on the other, Indochina today is a staple part of a traveller’s route around this mesmerising part of the world.

But this area has been the subject of complex political and military struggles, and the name “Indochina” bears witness to these. The name has its origin in the French colonisation of this region from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. A “colonial protectorate federation” - in other words an empire, second only in size to the British Empire - was formed in 1887, made up of territories seized by the French: Cambodia, Laos, and what is now modern Vietnam.

This federation was known as French Indochina - or “Indochine”, in French - a combination of India and China, acknowledging the proximity of these two countries and the significant cultural influence they had on the countries in question. At one time, French Indochina had its capital in Hanoi, in which, in common with many cities in the Indochina region, French colonial architecture continues to be a prominent feature.

street bakery in HanoiBaguettes are one of many cultural legacies of French-colonial rule

Indochina’s geographical boundaries were intimately linked with features on the ground, notably the Mekong River, which runs through all three countries. At the time of French rule, Vietnam was divided into three regions, all individual French protectorates: Tonkin in the north; Cochinchina in the south, and Annam in the middle.

The French Indochina federation didn’t last long: in the years during and following the Second World War, the area experienced massive political upheaval and war, and the history becomes too complex and involved to give a detailed account here. Suffice it to say that, after years of conflict known as the First Indochina War (led by Ho Chi Minh, whose name was adopted to rename Saigon), Vietnam finally shook off French rule for good in 1954, when the Geneva Accord took place to try to establish peace in the region. France formally withdrew, and the three Indochina countries became independent. Vietnam was, however, divided into the Communist North and anti-Communist south: the split being the background, of course, to the Vietnam War, which began not long after.

Saigon’s (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City) Notre Dame Cathedral build by the French colonists in Vietnam between 1863 and 1880

Although the term “Indochina” is still used to refer to these three countries - all former constituent parts of French Indochina - it’s now used less often, overtaken by the more general term “Southeast Asia”, which also encompasses other countries in the area, such as Burma and Thailand. Nevertheless, it’s a term well-suited to our enthusiasm for and speciality in these three countries. Find your perfect Indochina holiday, and discover more about the other countries we travel to, by browsing our holiday destinations page.