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Cochinchina is a region encompassing the southern third of Vietnam whose principal city is Saigon. It was a French colony from 1864 to 1948. The later state of South Vietnam was created in 1954 by combining Cochinchina with southern Annam. In Vietnamese, the region has been called Gia Định (1779-1832), Nam Kỳ (1834-1945), Nam Bộ (1945-48), Nam phần (1948-56), Nam Việt (1956-75), and currently Miền Nam. In French, it is called Cochinchine.
In the 17th century, Vietnam was divided between the Trịnh Lords to the north and the Nguyễn Lords to the south. The northern section was called Tonkin by Europeans, and the southern part called Cochinchina by most Europeans and Quinam by the Dutch.
During the French colonial period, the label moved further south, and came to refer to the southernmost part of Vietnam, controlled by Cambodia in prior centuries, and lying to its southeast. The area was called Cochinchine in French, and its capital was at Saigon. The two other parts of Vietnam at the time were known as Annam and Tonkin.
The name "Cochin" derives from the Malay Kuchi which referred to all of Vietnam. This term was in turn derived from the Chinese jiao zhi, pronounced giao chỉ in Vietnam. "Cochinchina" derives from the need or desire to distinguish this Cochi/Kochi/Kuchi from the city (and princely state) of Kochi in India.

Colonial Cochinchina (1864-1949)

For a series of complex reasons, the French government of Napoleon III, with the help of Spanish troops arriving from the Philippines (which was a Spanish colony at the time), decided to take over the southern part of Vietnam. In September 1858, France occupied Đà Nẵng (Tourane). On 18 February 1859, they conquered Saigon and three southern Vietnamese provinces: Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Dinh Tuong; on 13 April 1862, the Vietnamese government was forced to cede those territories to France.
In 1867, the provinces of Châu Đốc, Ha Tien and Vĩnh Long were added to French controlled territory. In 1864 all the French territories in southern Vietnam were declared to be the new French colony of Cochinchina, which would be governed by Admiral Jules Marie Dupré from 1868-1874.
In 1887, it became part of the Union of French Indochina. Fifty-one Vietnamese rebels were executed following the 1916 Cochinchina uprising. In 1933, the Spratly Islands were annexed to French Cochinchina. In July 1941, Japanese troops were based in French Cochinchina (a de facto occupation). After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Cochinchina was returned to French rule.
The "Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina," a French puppet state, was proclaimed in June 1946 to frustrate the Vietminh's desire to rule all of Vietnam. War between France and the Vietminh followed (1946-54). Cochinchina was renamed the "Republic of South Vietnam" in 1947, the "Provisional Central Government of Vietnam" in 1948, and the "State of Vietnam," with former emperor Bảo Đại as head of state, in 1949. The Bảo Đại government received international diplomatic recognition in 1950. France and the Vietminh concluded the Geneva Accords in 1954. As a result of this agreement, the southern half of the French protectorate of Annam was merged with the State of Vietnam, with the resulting state commonly referred to as South Vietnam. Meanwhile, northern Annam and the protectorate of Tonkin were awarded to the Vietminh. This area was afterwards known as North Vietnam.

1558-1976 summary

The Nguyễn Lords ruled the southern provinces of Vietnam from the city of Huế (in what was later called Annam by the French, though Annam historically refers to the northern part of modern Vietnam). The Tây Sơn also ruled the south but not from Saigon, instead they ruled from Đà Nẵng. Nguyễn Phúc Ánh ruled the united country of Vietnam from his ancestors’ capital of Huế. Cochinchina was never a single united administrative unit until the French seized it in the 1850s. Cochinchina was occupied by Japan during World War II (1941-45), but was restored to France afterwards. In 1955, after the French-Indochina War, Cochinchina was merged with southern Annam to form the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

(Source Wikipedia)