Information about viral acute respiratory infections (ARIs) is essential for prevention, diagnosis and treatment, but it is limited in tropical developing countries. This study described the clinical and epidemiological characteristics of ARIs in children hospitalized in Vietnam. Nasopharyngeal samples were collected from children with ARIs at Ho Chi Minh City Children's Hospital 2 between April 2010 and May 2011 in order to detect respiratory viruses by polymerase chain reaction. Viruses were found in 64% of 1082 patients, with 12% being co-infections. The leading detected viruses were human rhinovirus (HRV; 30%), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV; 23·8%), and human bocavirus (HBoV; 7·2%). HRV was detected all year round, while RSV epidemics occurred mainly in the rainy season. Influenza A (FluA) was found in both seasons. The other viruses were predominant in the dry season. HRV was identified in children of all age groups. RSV, parainfluenza virus (PIV) 1, PIV3 and HBoV, and FluA were detected predominantly in children aged <6 months, 6–12 months, 12–24 months, and >24 months, respectively. Significant associations were found between PIV1 with croup (P < 0·005) and RSV with bronchiolitis (P < 0·005). HBoV and HRV were associated with hypoxia (P < 0·05) and RSV with retraction (P < 0·05). HRV, RSV, and HBoV were detected most frequently and they may increase the severity of ARIs in children.