Vietnam’s forests have experienced a notable transformation over the past 20 years from net deforestation to reforestation and expanding forests. Continued reforestation that aims to achieve further economic and environmental benefits remains a national priority and strategy. We explore the current status of plantation forests and highlight possible means to facilitate their expansion in the uplands of Vietnam. We employ mixed-method triangulation to empirically explore plantation forests and their economic role in household livelihood, to quantify trade-offs between plantation forests and shifting cultivation, and to assess the constraints on plantation forest expansion in Nghe An province, north-central Vietnam. Results show that forests in the study area expanded by 406,000 ha (71.1%) between 1990 and 2016. Plantation forests increased by nearly 500% (from 32,000 ha to 190,000 ha), while natural forests expanded by 48.1% (from 538,000 ha to 797,000 ha). Plantation forests contributed an average of 35.1 percent of total household income in wealthier households and 27.9 percent of income in poor households. Switching from shifting cultivation to plantation forests would increase total household income and average carbon stock but decrease food provision. Total Economic Value would be higher for plantation forest scenarios if increased carbon stocks in plantations can be monetized. This carbon income might drive the conversion of shifting cultivation to plantation forests. Constraints on further expansion of plantation forest are low external cooperation, education, market stability, and agroforestry extension services. Our empirical results inform national plantation forest development, sustainable upland livelihood development, and climate change mitigation programs to ultimately facilitate forest transition and improve the resilience and sustainability of socio-ecological systems.