In Vietnam, premature mortality due to AIDS-related conditions is commonly associated with late initiation to antiretroviral therapy (ART). This study explores reasons for late ART initiation among people living with HIV (PLHIV) from the perspectives of health care providers and PLHIV. The study was undertaken in six clinics from five provinces in Vietnam. Baseline CD4 counts were collected from patient records and grouped into three categories: very late initiators (≤100 cells/mm(3) CD4), late initiators (100-200 cells/mm(3)) and timely initiators (200-350 cells/mm(3)). Thirty in-depth interviews with patients who started ART and 15 focus group discussions with HIV service providers were conducted and thematic analysis of the content performed. Of 934 patients, 62% started ART very late and 11% initiated timely treatment. The proportion of patients for whom a CD4 count was obtained within six months of their HIV diagnosis ranged from 22% to 72%. The proportion of patients referred to ART clinics by voluntary testing and counselling centres ranged from 1% to 35%. Structural barriers to timely ART initiation were poor linkage between HIV testing and HIV care and treatment services, lack of patient confidentiality and a shortage of HIV/AIDS specialists. If Vietnam's treatment practice is to align with WHO recommendations then the connection between voluntary counselling and testing service and ART clinics must be improved. Expansion and decentralization of HIV/AIDS services to allow implementation at the community level increased task sharing between doctors and nurses to overcome limited human resources, and improved patient confidentiality are likely to increase timely access to HIV treatment services for more patients.