The incidence rate of invasive cervical carcinoma (ICC) is 4-fold higher in Ho Chi Minh City, in the South of Vietnam, than in Hanoi, in the North. Thus, we explored the prevalence of and the risk factors for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in these 2 areas. A population-based random sample of married women aged 15–69 years were interviewed and had a gynaecological examination in the urban district of Ho Chi Minh City and in a peri-urban district in Hanoi. HPV DNA detection was performed using a GP5+/6+ primer-mediated PCR enzyme immunoassay. A total of 922 women from Ho Chi Minh and 994 from Hanoi, for whom a Pap smear and HPV-status were available, were evaluated. HPV DNA was detected among 10.9% of women in Ho Chi Minh City and 2.0% in Hanoi (age standardized prevalence, world standard population: 10.6% and 2.3%, respectively). In the 2 areas combined, 30 different HPV types were found, the most common being HPV 16 (in 14 single and 18 multiple infections), followed by HPV 58, 18 and 56. A peak of HPV DNA detection in women younger than age 25 was found in Ho Chi Minh City (22.3%) but not in Hanoi. Major risk factors for HPV DNA detection were indicators of sexual habits, most notably the presence of HSV-2 antibodies, nulliparity and the current use of oral contraceptives. Women in Hanoi showed the lowest HPV prevalence ever reported so far, suggesting that HPV has not spread widely in this population. As expected, HPV prevalence in a population seemed to be closely correlated with ICC incidence rates. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.