The uplands of mainland Southeast Asia and southwest China are undergoing dramatic transformations. These frontier regions are increasingly targeted by state officials and private entrepreneurs for their natural resources and agrarian possibilities. State endorsed regional development programs, such as the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, aim to connect Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Yunnan Province, China. Via this project, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and regional states have poured more than US$14 billion into infrastructure, telecommunications, energy and urban development. Such development politics and projects and the agrarian transformation occurring in this region – home to over 110 million inhabitants – are being increasingly documented, yet we know next to nothing about the impacts on upland urban growth and design, urban-rural linkages, and urban resident well-being. The aim of this research is to investigate growth patterns and dynamics of small cities/towns and the implications on local populations’ quality of life and livelihoods in upland northern Vietnam; while contributing to the theorization of small cities/towns in the Southeast Asian Massif, and the Global South. We are starting with a focus on three rapidly transforming provinces in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands – Lào Cai, Hà Giang and Cao Bằng.