Vietnam, a developing country, has had comparatively good health and human survival at low cost. The economic reform changed the health care system, and private pharmacies during the last 5 years have taken over a majority of the drug distribution. Problems include weaknesses in drug regulation and reported increases in antibiotic resistance. This case study, a purposive sample of two private pharmacies in Hanoi, explored management, including dispensing, inventory and financing, using the concept of triangulation. Observations and interviews of customers were complemented by stock inventory and interviews of the pharmacy staff. Drugs were classified according to the ATC code and the essential drug list of Vietnam. Pretested protocols were used. In all 1833 encounters were studied during the 2 weeks, out of which 286 were children. Less than 1% of customers came with prescriptions and 94.9% decided by themselves which drugs to buy. Antibiotics represented 17%, of which 90% were broad spectrum. Ampicillin dominated, both in children and adults. Some 50% of the antibiotics were given for 2.5 days or less. Less than 50% of the drugs were essential drugs (ED) on dispensing and even less on inventory. Antibiotics and vitamins were the most commonly sold drugs and, overall, brand names dominated. Little if any drug information was observed. Antibiotics were said to represent the most profitable drugs, according to the pharmacy staff. More than 20% of all products were combination drugs, including irrational and popular products with antibiotics and corticosteroids and combinations of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine. This study shows an unexpectedly high proportion of customers, being "Tu Lam Bac Sy" (their own doctors), deciding themselves which drugs to buy. Although the "Doi moi" renovation has led to much improved drug availability, at least in urban setting, our case study highlights major problems in need of urgent actions. In particular the prevailing practices regarding antibiotics and combination drugs need to be seriously scrutinized and drug regulatory mechanisms should be enforced.