North Vietnam is situated on a major route of Pleistocene hominin dispersal in East Asia, and the area's karstic caves preserve many prehistoric shell middens. Fossil and genomic evidence suggest a complex human history in this region and more widely across Southeast Asia and southern China, but related archaeological investigations are hampered by challenging site stratigraphies. Recent investigations of shell middens in other geographical settings have revealed the microstratigraphic complexity of these anthropogenic deposits. But caves promote distinctive site formation processes, while tropical climates may catalyse geomorphic and diagenetic changes. These environmental factors complicate the interpretation of North Vietnam's shell middens and constraining their effects upon the formation, preservation and destruction of these sites is critical to understanding the archaeology of this region.We examine two archaeological cave sites, dated to the Late Pleistocene and located in the limestone uplands surrounding the Hanoi Basin. Each contains multiple shell midden layers associated with prehistoric occupation and burials. Using thin-section micromorphology (microstratigraphy), we reconstruct the depositional and post-depositional histories of these sites, presenting a geoarchaeological framework of interpretation that is applicable to shell middens in mainland Southeast Asia and tropical zones more widely. This work represents a further step towards improving our understanding of prehistoric human dispersals and adaptations in this region. This article is part of the theme issue 'Tropical forests in the deep human past'.