This study assesses the presence of a forest transition – that is, a shift from net deforestation to net reforestation – in Vietnam during the 1990s, and describes its key attributes relevant for global environmental change issues. Using Fuzzy Kappa and other indicators, we compared forest cover estimates and spatial patterns from global and national land cover maps from the early and late 1990s, and compiled other available statistics for years before and after that period. This showed that a forest transition indeed occurred in Vietnam: the forest cover dropped to 25–31% of the country area in 1991–1993, and then increased to 32–37% in 1999–2001. The reforestation occurred at a higher rate than deforestation in the previous decades, and was due in similar proportions, to natural forest regeneration and to planted forests. The carbon stock in forests followed a similar transition, decreasing to 903 (770–1307) Tg C in 1991–1993, and then increasing to 1374 (1058–1744) Tg C in 2005. However, forest density declined during the same period, with an increasing proportion of young and degraded forests. The effects on habitats measured with landscape pattern indices were contrasted: in several regions, the reforestation decreased forest fragmentation, while in others, clearing of old-growth forests continued and/or forest fragmentation increased. This shows that a transition in forest area is not sufficient to rehabilitate the different ecosystem functions and services of forests. Other forest transitions exist in Tropical Asia and in Latin America. Knowledge about the causes, pattern and environmental impacts of the forest transition in Vietnam is therefore relevant to understand possible emerging regional trends that would have implications for global environmental change.