Vietnam, located in the tropical region of the northwest Pacific Ocean, is frequently impacted by tropical storms. Occurrence of extreme water level events associated with tropical storms are often unpredicted and put coastal infrastructure and safety of coastal populations at risk. Hence, an improved understanding of the nature of storm surges and their components along the Vietnam coast is required. For example, a higher than expected extreme storm surge during Typhoon Kalmegi (2014) highlighted the lack of understanding on the characteristics of storm surges in Vietnam. Physical processes that influence the non-tidal water level associated with tropical storms can persist for up to 14 days, beginning 3–4 days prior to storm landfall and cease up to 10 days after the landfall of the typhoon. This includes the forerunner, ‘direct’ storm surge, and coastally trapped waves. This study used a continuous record of six sea level time series collected over a 5-year period (2013–2017) from along the Vietnam coast and Hong Kong to examine the contribution of the forerunner to non-tidal water level. The forerunner is defined as the gradual increase in mean water level, 2–3 days prior to typhoon landfall and generated by shore parallel winds and currents that result in a mean higher water level at the coast. Results indicated that a forerunner was generated by almost all typhoons, at least at one station, with a range between 20 and 50 cm. The forerunner contributed up to 50% of the water level change due to the storm. Combination of forerunner and onshore winds generated storm surges that were much higher (to 70 cm). It was also found that the characteristics of the typhoon (e.g., path, speed, severity and size) significantly influenced the generation of the forerunner. It is recommended that the forerunner that is not currently well defined in predictive models should be included in storm surge forecasts.