Agricultural expansion and resource exploitation are reconfiguring the Southeast Asian Massif in important ways, with related in-migration to these uplands increasing rapidly. Within this region, the northern Vietnam frontier has an unusual migration history, including state-sponsored resettlement and spontaneous migration. While analyzing the reflections of 90 migrants, we investigate the patterns and processes by which Vietnam’s northern uplands have been peopled with lowland migrants from World War II until today, revealing three key waves or temporal groups. Focusing on these groups, we compare migrants’ everyday lived experiences during and soon after their journeys, with a range of unmet expectations, concerns, and tensions becoming apparent. This combination means that while the taming and territorialization of this upland frontier can be considered structurally complete, for migrant settlers their new home remains an ambiguous social space.