French Indochina War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In an effort to rid Vietnam of French control, Emperor Tu Duc violated the 1862 Treaty of Saigon and renewed a vassal relationship with China, instigating the French to declare war.

Summary of Event

Although the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc ratified the Treaty of Saigon that his government made with France Saigon, Treaty of (1862) in 1862, it remained a source of resentment for him. He continued to do everything he could to rid Vietnam of the French. Unable to find a solution, Tu Duc focused on limiting the commercial imperialism of France and suppressing the Christian-led rebellion China;Christian rebellion in Tongking (northern provinces, also called Tonkin). In 1873 a French trader was barred from proceeding up the Red River with his goods. Tu Duc saw the trader’s action as a violation of the treaty, and tensions mounted. Vietnamese forces in Hanoi prepared for fighting, and Francis Garnier took strongholds on the Red River. This led to the signing of the “peace, friendship and perpetual alliance” treaty in 1874. French Indochina War (1882-1885) Vietnam;French Indochina War (1882-1885) French Empire;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Vietnam;and France[France] China;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Vietnam;and China[China] Indochina Tu Duc [kw]French Indochina War (Apr., 1882-1885) [kw]Indochina War, French (Apr., 1882-1885) [kw]War, French Indochina (Apr., 1882-1885) French Indochina War (1882-1885) Vietnam;French Indochina War (1882-1885) French Empire;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Vietnam;and France[France] China;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Vietnam;and China[China] Indochina Tu Duc [g]China;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [g]Southeast Asia;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [g]France;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [g]Vietnam;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr., 1882-1885: French Indochina War[5190] Rivière, Henri Courbet, Amédée Harmand, François-Jules

The treaty called for the withdrawal of French troops from Hanoi for a reprieve, which Tu Duc took as a weakness in French forces. As they withdrew, Tu Duc continued his policy of persecuting Christians. Vietnamese resentment of missionaries Missionaries;in Vietnam[Vietnam] had substantially grown since France took power in Vietnam, and as the French left Hanoi, Christian villages were burned to the ground. Tu Duc signed the friendship treaty with no intention of honoring it, and, in 1874, he began to seek Chinese protection. In 1876, Tu Duc revived Chinese overlordship and in 1880 requested Chinese troops to quell Tongking rebels. The Vietnamese also continued to encourage insurgents to attack French commercial interests in an attempt to frustrate and drive them out.

The presence of Chinese troops and constant guerrilla attacks gave the French an excuse to intervene. The French decided to strengthen their forces in Hanoi. Captain Rivière Rivière, Henri took reinforcements there in April of 1882. Citing the need to protect his men from an oncoming attack, Rivière attacked Hanoi and seized the city. The French then took Nam Dinh outside Hanoi, followed by Hon Gay and its anthracite coal mines one year later. Tu Duc turned to guerrilla tactics and enlisted the help of Tongking bandits, the Black Flags, whose strength had already been diminished by French attacks. In March, 1883, the Black Flags attacked Hanoi, killing Rivière and shattering his troops.

Rivière’s loss strengthened France’s resolve to control Vietnam, and additional funds were given to establish a French protectorate by military force. Jules Ferry, the prime minister of France, was a staunch supporter of imperialism and sought to dominate Vietnam. General Bouet took over the French forces at Hanoi while they awaited Ferry’s dispatch of three thousand troops from Europe. Under Ferry, Admiral Amédée Courbet Courbet, Amédée took command of naval forces and François-Jules Harmand Harmand, François-Jules , a civilian, became commissioner-general.

Tu Duc died in July, and because he had no heirs, a succession crisis followed. Duc Duc received the title of emperor from the council of regents, but he was deposed soon after. Hiep Hoa Hiep Hoa ascended the throne, but by then, French forces, led by Courbet, arrived at the Hue River in August. After a heavy bombardment, Vietnamese forces suffered heavy losses, and Hue fell in August. The substantial losses prompted the Court to send a mandarin (public official) to plea for a truce. The French demanded the surrender of all forts and vessels in the Hue area, and negotiations for a new treaty began.

French Indochina





Emperor Hiep Hoa signed a treaty of protectorate in August, 1883, which established a French protectorate over North (Tongking) and Central (Annam) Vietnam, and the independence of Vietnam ended. The French occupied as many forts along the Hue River and in Tongking as they saw necessary. The Red River went under French control and was promptly opened for trade. Vietnam also surrendered the province of Binh Thuan and all of its warships. In addition, all Vietnamese troops in Tongking were called back.

In June, 1884, the Hue Hue, Treaty of (1884) treaty was signed. It modified and confirmed the treaty of protectorate. Binh Thuan was returned to Vietnam, Tongking was ruled by France, and Annam (central provinces) became a protectorate.

Because the Chinese had renewed their overlordship with Vietnam prior to these treaties, the Chinese minister in Paris protested the actions of France and opposed the treaty of protectorate. In an effort to seize back their vassal, the Chinese had prepared for war, ordering warships and sending reinforcements to Tongking. In December, 1883, French and Chinese forces collided when the French captured Son Tay, which the Chinese were defending. Bouet beheaded the captured Chinese. In early 1884, French troops captured Thai Nguyen, Bac Ninh, and the Black River region. In May the Chinese and French met for negotiations and drafted a treaty at Tientsin Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) (Tianjin). The Chinese had to withdraw troops from Vietnam and never intervene in Vietnamese affairs, and France was to protect China’s southern border if necessary.

Even with the convention of Tientsin treaty, clashes still existed between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. China did not necessarily want to give up its rights to Tongking and expose its border to the French. A misunderstanding of when the Chinese troops would withdraw led to hostilities between the two countries, and a major battle occurred in June at Bac Le in Lang Son. France lost this battle and demanded compensation from China. With China’s refusal, tensions continued. In February, 1885, France took Lang Son and blockaded the Chinese territory of Formosa Formosa (Taiwan). The war waged on and eventually concluded without a clear winner. Eager to seek peace on both sides, negotiations reopened. Outside Lang Son, French General François de Negrier was ambushed and wounded, and his second in command decided to evacuate the town. This latest incident increased France’s desire to end the war, and the following month, a peace protocol was signed. The protocol was confirmed with the Treaty of Tientsin Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) in June, which removed the French from Formosa, in addition to the agreements already ratified in 1884. The treaty between China and France solidified French control of Vietnam.


The Treaty of Tientsin sealed Vietnam’s fate as a French territory, beginning several decades of colonial rule. With colonial rule came subjugation and oppression and a complete denial of basic rights, such as the ability for the Vietnamese to freely move around their country and beyond the borders. The French, fearful of losing their lands to Great Britain, and in an effort to maintain control of Indochina, did whatever they felt was necessary to suppress dissidents and revolts.

By the twentieth century, as occurred with many countries under imperial rule, waves of nationalism grew. Groups that revolted early under imperial rule became symbols of nationalism. For Vietnam, any Vietnamese person who tried to overthrow an oppressor in history became a martyr to the nationalistic cause and a means to garner peasant support. As the French started to lose control over their territories, Vietnamese nationalism grew, until the First Indochina War of 1946-1954. This war marked the culmination of anti-French sentiment. Led by Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam regained control from the French.

Without the modes of imperialism, nationalism would not have culminated as it did, and the massacre of the French at Dien Bien Phu would not have occurred. In addition, the Vietnam War was an indirect result of French imperialism, because without the French, Ho Chi Minh would not have become a war hero and, therefore, also a political figure.

The Sino-French-Vietnamese War of the 1880’s also had immediate effects. The tensions between China and France led to tensions between the Europeans. China was a major trade partner with Great Britain and other powers, and the fighting between France and China was affecting European trade. The fighting with China was also an embarrassment to the French prime minister, Jules Ferry, who wanted to expand France’s empire into Laos Laos and Siam Siam . However, with British pressure to end the fighting and the embarrassment of the war, Ferry was forced from office. His removal led to the deterioration of imperial desires to acquire more land. Without Ferry, British and French tensions also eased slightly in Southeast Asia, possibly avoiding large-scale fighting in that area.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duiker, William J. Vietnam: A Nation in Revolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Brief discussion of the wars with France, but extended discussion of French colonialism in Vietnam. Emphasizes the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sardesai, D. R. Vietnam: Past and Present. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2005. A detailed discussion of the history of Vietnam, with an emphasis on colonial expansion, the colonial period, and the rise of nationalism in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarling, Nicholas, ed. From c. 1800 to the 1930’s. Vol. 2, part 1 in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A detailed analysis of the war with a discussion of European motives, the political atmosphere in Europe, and how those two factors affected the colonization of Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tate, D. J. M. The Making of Modern South-East Asia: The European Conquest. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1977. A detailed discussion of the war from both angles, with an emphasis on events and dates.

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