Payments for ecosystem services (PES) often serve multiple objectives, such as carbon emission reduction and poverty alleviation. However, the effectiveness of PES as an instrument to achieve these multiple objectives, in particular in a conservation-development context, is often questioned. This study adds to the very limited empirical evidence base and investigates to what extent Vietnam’s move to PES has helped protect forest ecosystems and improve local livelihoods and income inequality. We zoom in on Lam Dong province, where PES was first introduced in Vietnam in 2009. Changes in forest cover are analysed using satellite images over a period of 15 years (2000–2014). Socio-economic impacts are assessed based on rural household interviews with PES participants and non-participants as a control group over a period of 7 years (2008–2014). Our results show that PES contributes significantly to forest cover, the improvement of local livelihoods, and the reduction of income inequality.