BACKGROUND: In Viet Nam, most of the public health staff (84%) currently works in rural areas, where 80% of the people live. To provide good quality health care services, it is important to develop strategies influencing staff motivation for better performance. METHOD: An exploratory qualitative research was carried out among health workers in two provinces in North Viet Nam so as to identify entry points for developing strategies that improve staff performance in rural areas. The study aimed to determine the major motivating factors and it is the first in Viet Nam that looks at health workers' job perception and motivation. Apart from health workers, managers at national and at provincial level were interviewed as well as some community representatives. RESULTS: The study showed that motivation is influenced by both financial and non-financial incentives. The main motivating factors for health workers were appreciation by managers, colleagues and the community, a stable job and income and training. The main discouraging factors were related to low salaries and difficult working conditions. CONCLUSION: Activities associated with appreciation such as performance management are currently not optimally implemented, as health workers perceive supervision as control, selection for training as unclear and unequal, and performance appraisal as not useful. The kind of non-financial incentives identified should be taken into consideration when developing HRM strategies. Areas for further studies are identified.