The digestive vacuole of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum is the site of haemoglobin digestion and haem detoxification, and is the target of chloroquine and other antimalarials. The mechanisms for genesis of the digestive vacuole and transfer of haemoglobin from the host cytoplasm are still debated. Here, we use live-cell imaging and photobleaching to monitor the uptake of the pH-sensitive fluorescent tracer SNARF-1-dextran from the erythrocyte cytoplasm in ring-stage and trophozoite-stage parasites. We compare these results with electron tomography of serial sections of parasites at different stages of growth. We show that uptake of erythrocyte cytoplasm is initiated in mid-ring-stage parasites. The host cytoplasm is internalised via cytostome-derived invaginations and concentrated into several acidified peripheral structures. Haemoglobin digestion and haemozoin formation take place in these vesicles. The ring-stage parasites can adopt a deeply invaginated cup shape but do not take up haemoglobin via macropinocytosis. As the parasite matures, the haemozoin-containing compartments coalesce to form a single acidic digestive vacuole that is fed by haemoglobin-containing vesicles. There is also evidence for haemoglobin degradation in compartments outside the digestive vacuole. The work has implications for the stage specificity of quinoline and endoperoxide antimalarials.