Three decades after the economic reform that abandoned socialist central planning for a market economy, the Vietnamese state has been accelerating its modernising efforts. In 2009, a so-called New Countryside Programme was initiated to mobilise resources for developing a modern and ‘civilised’ countryside. While it brought together various existing development schemes, the programme’s logics and practices indicate a new direction in rural development ideology. Although the state continues to practice political control and moral guidance, there is a shift away from direct intervention to enabling local people and communities to be responsible for their development. This paper uses narratives constructed from long-term ethnographic fieldwork with a migrant, waste-trading community in northern Vietnam to examine how the scheme works out in practice. They suggest that the state actively capitalises on people’s mobility and entrepreneurial capacity through long-standing tools of socialist mobilisation. Local people are sceptical of the state’s agenda, but find in it a social space in which to locate their social aspirations and the meanings of their actions. There are, however, limits to their strategies and aspirations, and thus to the goals of the New Countryside Programme itself, limits that are rooted in the uncertainties and anxieties of Vietnam’s political economy today.