Global conservation discourses and practices increasingly rely on market-based solutions to fulfill the dual objective of forest conservation and economic development. Although varied, these interventions are premised on the assumption that natural resources are most effectively managed and preserved while benefiting livelihoods if the market-incentives of a liberalised economy are correctly in place. By examining three nationally supported payment for ecosystem service (PES) schemes in Vietnam we show how insecure land tenure, high transaction costs and high opportunity costs can undermine the long-term benefits of PES programmes for local households and, hence, potentially threaten their livelihood viability. In many cases, the income from PES programmes does not reach the poor because of political and economic constraints. Local elite capture of PES benefits through the monopolization of access to forestland and existing state forestry management are identified as key problems. We argue that as PES schemes create a market for ecosystem services, such markets must be understood not simply as bald economic exchanges between 'rational actors' but rather as exchanges embedded in particular socio-political and historical contexts to support the sustainable use of forest resources and local livelihoods in Vietnam.