Increasing frequency, intensity and duration of severe weather events are posing major challenges to global food security and livelihoods of rural people. Agriculture has evolved through adaptation to local circumstances for thousands of years. Local experience in responding to severe weather conditions, accumulated over generations and centuries, is valuable for developing adaptation options to current climate change. This study aimed to: (i) identify tree species that reduce vulnerability of cropping systems under climate variability; and (ii) develop a method for rapidly assessing vulnerability and exploring strategies of smallholder farmers in rural areas exposed to climate variability. Participatory Rural Appraisal methods in combination with Geographical Information Systems tools and statistical analysis of meteorological data were used to evaluate local vulnerability to climate change and to investigate local adaptation measures in two selected villages in Vietnam, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The low predictability of severe weather events makes food crops, especially grain production, insecure. This study shows that while rice and rain-fed crops suffered over 40 % yield losses in years of extreme drought or flood, tree-based systems and cattle were less affected. 13 tree species performed well under the harsh local climate conditions in home and forest gardens to provide income, food, feed and other environmental benefits. Thus, this research suggests that maintenance and enhancement of locally evolved agroforestry systems, with high resilience and multiple benefits, can contribute to climate change adaptation.