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Viet Nam's special tea

Update: October, 12/2014 - 12:00

Farmers are growing beautiful tea in the mountains of northern Viet Nam.

Tea needs cool weather to grow and it is like that all year around in this part of the country.

Visitors say the tea in the north of Viet Nam has a very special taste – like no other tea in the world.

Picking time: A Mong ethnic woman in Son La Province's Ta Sua Commune picks young buds from hundred-year-old shan tuyet tea trees. The rare variety is grown in Yen Bai, Son La, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Dien Bien and Hoa Binh provinces.
Picking time: A Mong ethnic woman in Son La Province's Ta Sua Commune picks young buds from hundred-year-old shan tuyet tea trees. The rare variety is grown in Yen Bai, Son La, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Dien Bien and Hoa Binh provinces. - VNS Photo Pham Vu Khanh

by Thao Lu

Sweetness supersedes and quickly removes any bitterness from the tea, a specialty from the mountainous province of Yen Bai in northern Viet Nam, that Nguyen Thanh Hai sips.

"It's completely perfect as a refreshing treat on a summer morning," the middle-aged woman said, as she fastened her eyes on little dried, curled buds coated in a thin whitish cover which seemed to sparkle under the early sun.

Hai expressed much delight over the "Thank you" gift she has received from a friend – a crystalline glass jar containing around 100g of shan tuyet tea marked ‘a Suoi Giang – Yen Bai specialty'.

Located around 1,200 to 2,200m above sea level, Suoi Giang Commune in Van Chan District enjoys a cool climate all year round. The favourable geography, terrain and weather conditions have been the key to the development of tea trees which produce the well-known shan tuyet variety.

The latest figures show that Suoi Giang is home to 393 hectares of land planted to tea, three-fourths of them with ancient roots.

In the 1960s, Dr M. Djemmukhatze of the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences visited Suoi Giang and concluded that its tea had the most unique flavour. At that time, the commune had nearly 40,000 ancient tea trees aged from 200 to 300 years.

"I've been to 120 countries which grow tea in the world but found no other places that have perennial plants like those in Suoi Giang. The tea here is unique. All the 18 flavours of the global tea varieties can be found in a single bowl of green tea," he wrote in a notebook kept at the local People's Committee.

According to local people, mostly from the H'Mong ethnic group, the fresh buds still retain their natural scent, plumpness, sheen and an outer layer of whitish fuzz after these are manually processed, so they are called shan tuyet.

For ages, they have viewed the ancient tea as a rare, valuable, and healthy herb, with a liquid as yellow as forest honey instead of green, like other tea brands. The smooth blend of all of its elements makes the brew one of the finest natural drinks in the country.

The late poet Xuan Dieu even composed poems describing the lingering sweetness of Suoi Giang tea on the tip of one's tongue as a long-lasting love between a man and a woman.

According to Nguyen Dinh, a researcher of tea culture, Suoi Giang still holds a tea-worshipping ceremony at the outset of the first tea crop of the year.

"Only the H'Mong people in Suoi Giang possess such a unique cultural trait in Viet Nam. They do make offerings to local deities to win their support for the coming bumper harvests," Dinh said.

"Local people prepare a cock, two bottles of home-made rice wine and some bamboo and paper stuff and place them on an altar set up under the foot of the oldest tea tree, aged more than 300 years," Dinh recalled. "A wizard, normally a prestigious person in the community, is placed in charge of the worshipping rituals."

"The practice serves as a perfect connection between generations of people in Suoi Giang who have lived on the tea. It is also a fine cultural beauty, likely demonstrating that reaching areas of century-old tea trees is needed to understand a whole cultural region," Dinh added.

"People drink the tea, not just because of its fine buds, as white as snow, with its yellowish brew and fragrant and sweet taste, but because of the quintessence of the northern sky and earth, as well as cultural features of the H'Mong people," said Pham Vu Khanh who has been in the business for years.

"Each kilo of shan tuyet costs about 10 times more than the popular Thai Nguyen tea varieties, but the number of customers remains high," Khanh said.

"On the average, an ancient tea tree produces between seven to eight kilos of freshly-picked tea per year while a kilo of dried tea requires five kilos of freshly-picked tea. That's why shan tuyet tea is a precious treasure," he added.

Nguyen Huu Phuong who has returned from a community-based tour to experience the daily tea processing work of the H'Mong people in Suoi Giang, said: "When I first heard that a kilo of the shan tuyet tea cost as much as VND3.5 million (US$170), I thought it was unbelievable."

"Now I think differently after witnessing and becoming directly involved in the tea-processing work. The price is nothing compared with the efforts the locals make to produce the specialty tea," the Hanoian added. "The more the cultural features in the tea are exploited, the higher is its value."

"The Chinese and Japanese drink as much tea as the Vietnamese," said Dinh. "They have developed this habit and turned it into a cultural trait, like that of the tea ceremony in Japan, to make business and diplomacy. I'm glad that this trend is taking place in Viet Nam."

Figures show that Viet Nam has around 7,500 hectares of ancient shan tuyet tea trees, mostly in the northeastern and northwestern regions. This variety has made a name in the provinces of Yen Bai, Son La, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Dien Bien and Hoa Binh. — VNS

GLOSSARY

Sweetness supersedes and quickly removes any bitterness from the tea, a specialty from the mountainous province of Yen Bai in northern Viet Nam, that Nguyen Thanh Hai sips.

Supersedes means "takes over".

Hai expressed much delight over the "Thank you" gift she has received from a friend – a crystalline glass jar containing around 100g of shan tuyet tea marked ‘a Suoi Giang – Yen Bai specialty'.

Crystalline means made of crystals.

The favourable geography, terrain and weather conditions have been the key to the development of tea trees which produce the well-known shan tuyet variety.

Terrain means countryside.

Different types of teas are known as varieties of tea.

In the 1960s, Dr M. Djemmukhatze of the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences visited Suoi Giang and concluded that its tea had the most unique flavour.

To conclude means to come to an opinion, or a decision, about something after gathering information about it.

If something is unique there is only one of it.

"I've been to 120 countries which grow tea in the world but found no other places that have perennial plants like those in Suoi Giang.

Perennial plants are those that last forever and do not die off after a season.

According to local people, mostly from the H'Mong ethnic group, the fresh buds still retain their natural scent, plumpness, sheen and an outer layer of whitish fuzz after these are manually processed, so they are called shan tuyet.

An ethnic group is a community of people who are different in language, culture, sometimes race and sometimes religion, to other communities who live around them.

A scent is a smell.

Sheen means the softness of a surface.

Manually processed means worked using someone's hands, rather than using machines.

The late poet Xuan Dieu even composed poems describing the lingering sweetness of Suoi Giang tea on the tip of one's tongue as a long-lasting love between a man and a woman.

If someone is described as "the late" it means they are dead.

Lingering sweetness means a taste of sweetness that lasts rather than just going away.

"Only the H'Mong people in Suoi Giang possess such a unique cultural trait in Viet Nam. They do make offerings to local deities to win their support for the coming bumper harvests," Dinh said.

A trait is something special to a person, or a community.

Deities are gods.

"People drink the tea, not just because of its fine buds, as white as snow, with its yellowish brew and fragrant and sweet taste, but because of the quintessence of the northern sky and earth, as well as cultural features of the H'Mong people," said Pham Vu Khanh who has been in the business for years.

Fragrant means having a pleasant or sweet smell.

Quintessence means the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class.

"The more the cultural features in the tea are exploited, the higher is its value."

To exploit something means to make full use of it.

WORKSHEET

Find words that mean the following in the Word Search:

1.      They were composed by Xuan Dieu.

2.      He was placed in charge of the worshipping rituals.

3.      The colour of forest honey.

4.      A unit used to measure land.

5.      If there is only one of something it is ________

 

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© Duncan Guy/Learn the News/ Viet Nam News 2014

































 1. Poems; 2. Wizard; 3. Yellow; 4. Hectare; 5. Unique.

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