This paper aims to provide an introductory overview over the socio-cultural context of Northern Vietnam to agricultural researchers. The paper focuses on the interplay between Vietnam's lowlands and the uplands to specify what makes the Northern uplands a distinct region; as an object of empirical agricultural research and as a context of application of research results. The paper reviews the developments of selected social institutions from pre-colonial times to the current era of "renovation". First, developments in Vietnam's legal and administrative structures are outlined. Second, education and higher education, particularly the agricultural sciences, are discussed. The third and main part elaborates on social, political, and economic specifics of the Northern Uplands. It is suggested that the relationship between formal and informal institutions is crucial for understanding the dynamics of contemporary uplands Vietnam, particularly in the given multi-cultural situation.