Potential evapotranspiration (ETP) is an important part of a climatic water balance and a crucial variable in many kinds of models in computing actual evapotranspiration. The objective of this study was to find a reasonable approach of ETP calculation for a height-differentiated landscape in subtropical climate. From the pool of diverse approaches, six common methods [Hamon, Priestley–Taylor, Thornthwaite, Blaney–Criddle, Turc and Food and Agricultural Organization Irrigation and Drainage Paper No. 56 (FAO-56)] were selected. With the meteorological data for long-term period (1964–2008), the calculation of ETP values was performed for 12 different meteorological stations in the Red River basin. Among the applied ETP calculation methods, the Turc and the FAO-56 methods agreed well at most stations and represent best the expectations for the ETP values of the Thao and Da subbasins. The findings of our investigations indicate that in highly structured (land use and elevation) regions, not all methods provide satisfying results. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.