Background Waist circumference (WC) is an indicator of intra-abdominal adipose tissue, high levels of which confer an increased risk of cardiometabolic disease. Population data on WC should be more informative than data on body mass index (BMI), which is a general indicator of body size. This study aimed to evaluate the importance of WC relative to BMI in cross-sectional relationships with blood pressure (BP), glucose, and total cholesterol (TC) in the adult population of Vietnam. Methods The data were collected in a population-based survey conducted during 2009–10 using the “WHO STEPwise approach to surveillance of risk factors for non-communicable disease” (STEPS) methodology. The survey participants (n = 14 706 aged 25 to 64 years) were selected by multi-stage stratified cluster sampling from eight provinces representative of the eight geographical regions of Vietnam. All measurements were performed in accordance with the STEPS protocols. All analyses were performed using complex survey methods. Results The measurements of WC and BMI were highly correlated (men r = 0.80, women r = 0.77). For men, the strongest and predominant associations with BP, glucose, and TC were for WC or an index based on WC. For women, this was true for glucose but BMI was more important for BP and TC. WC or an index based on WC provided better discrimination than BMI of hypertension and elevated glucose, and of raised TC for men. Information on four new anthropometric indices did not improve model fit or subject discrimination. Conclusion For BP/hypertension, glucose/elevated glucose, and TC/raised TC, WC was more informative than BMI for Vietnamese men, but both WC and BMI were important for Vietnamese women. Both WC and BMI need to be assessed for estimation of CVD risk in Vietnam.