The interpretation of palaeoclimate archives based on oxygen isotopes depends critically on a detailed understanding of processes controlling the isotopic composition of precipitation. In the summer monsoonal realm, like Southeast Asia, seasonally and interannually depleted oxygen isotope ratios in precipitation have been linked to the summer monsoon strength. However, in some regions, such as central Vietnam, the majority of precipitation falls outside the summer monsoon period. We investigate processes controlling stable isotopes in precipitation from central Vietnam by combining moisture uptake calculations with monthly stable isotope data observed over five years. We find that the isotopic seasonal cycle in this region is driven by a shift in moisture source from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. This shift is reflected in oxygen isotope ratios with low values (− 8 to − 10‰) during summer and high values during spring/winter (0 to − 3‰), while 70% of the annual rainfall occurs during autumn. Interannual changes in precipitation isotopes in central Vietnam are governed by the timing of the seasonal onset and withdrawal of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which controls the amount of vapour contributed from each source.