Drink up on Vietnamese tea culture

Update: April, 05/2010 - 22:47

Slow sips: People gather at Truong Xuan Tea Balcony to enjoy Vietnamese tea and learn about tea drinking styles. — VNS Photos Doan Tung
Perfect pour: Vietnamese tea ceremony is simple, yet the practice should be correct.
by Minh Thu

A tea server slowly pours tea into cups from a teapot. The pouring is performed beautifully, in a manner known as ‘high mountain-long river', which helps the scent of the tea spread. Gracefully offering guests, she holds a cup with three fingers offering the tea as ‘three dragons flanking a pearl'.

That's only a snapshot of the tea drinking culture of Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese often take tea, betel or a cigarette as a prelude to conversation as conveyed by the folk saying that says "a quid of betel and areca-nut starts the ball rolling".

Drinking culture

Tea drinking is an integral part of Vietnamese culture. Present everywhere from holidays to weddings, tea brings friends and family together in conversation and celebration.

Do Xuan Truong is known as an artisan and researcher of Vietnamese tea. He is the fifth generation of his family to uphold the tradition of preserving and improving Vietnamese tea culture.

He opened Truong Xuan (Longevity) Tea Parlour at 13 Ngo Tat To Street, Ha Noi as a rendezvous-point for connoisseurs of tea in Ha Noi to enjoy and discuss the art of tea-making.

The Viet Nam Tea Lovers Club was established with more than 300 members from different parts of the country. Once every three months, they get together at the Truong Xuan Tea Parlour to talk and exchange tea-related experiences, and enjoy the tea happy hour by the host.

"Tea drinking has been a tradition of Vietnamese people for over three thousand years," Xuan says.

There are many aspects of tea culture worth noting. The therapeutic and medicinal functions of tea are well known and in hot weather, hot tea is devoured for its surprising cooling effect, and in cold weather for its warmth. There are many types of tea in Viet Nam, each with its own unique flavour and properties. Tea cultivation, the history of tea in Viet Nam, its relationship to the environment, its economic impact on the ethnic minorities who grow it, the aesthetic aspects and social importance of tea-drinking rituals, could all provide topics for extensive research.

Beside unscented green tea, teas with the scent of flowers are unique examples of Vietnamese tea culture. The whole process is made by hand, in a very careful manner to transmit the natural scent into the tea.

Lotus tea is popular during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, a unique tea made in a traditional way. To have the finest lotus tea, lotus flowers must be picked when they have just bloomed and kept fresh. Lotus flower buds are very carefully peeled back, the petals preserved without a single rip or tear until the fresh green tea is added.

After all the buds are full and rewoven they are put aside overnight and the next evening, the process is reversed and the wonderfully aromatic lotus tea is extracted. To make a kilo of lotus tea nearly one thousand lotus flowers are needed.

Jasmine tea also has a special form of preparation. The jasmine flowers are harvested during the day and stored in a cool place until night. During the night, the flowers bloom with full fragrance. The flowers are layered over the tea leaves during the scenting process. They are turned and turned and left to absorb the scent. In order to produce 1kg of jasmine tea, 1kg of jasmine flowers are needed.

Drinking style

For Xuan, Vietnamese tea drinking is simpler than the Chinese or Japanese, but it bears the essence of Vietnamese culture. The yellow and green of the tea and the natural scent of flowers symbolise the country, rich in culture and natural resources. Bitterness at the beginning reflects the hard-working life of the people. The sweet and cool taste that lingers evokes the Vietnamese soul, sentimental and faithful.

"Enjoying a cup of tea and thinking about life helps people to be good and avoid evil," Xuan says.

A tea course requires a brazier, a boiling pot, an earthenware pot of cold water (usually rain water, and in special occasions some dew gathered from lotus leaves), a tea pot, teacups, tea box and a few pieces of aloe and aromatic wood.

The host will boil the water for a few minutes, then take it off the fire and let the temperature drop to about 90oC. It is poured gently into the teapot, and then cover tightly for about five minutes. While the tea is stewing, tea connoisseurs will comment on the fine aroma of the tea, always keeping the tea as the focus of the conversation, as you would do at a wine tasting. From the teapot, the tea is poured into a large cup called a soldier-cup.

This procedure ensures an even distribution of the tea's flavour and colour. If it were poured directly into each cup, the first cup would be more diluted than the last. As you sip the tea, discuss its taste and the mood it brings to you. Poetry is always a good subject at the tea course, but nothing of the past, nothing of the future. The subject belongs only to the present.

Four words – Hoa, Kinh, Thanh and Tich – are used to describe the intangible aspects of tea drinking. Hoa means peace, Kinh reflects respect for the elderly and friends, Thanh means tranquillity and Tich points to the highest aesthetic level: leisure.

Xuan says serving tea correctly is an elaborate ritual. For starters, you have to choose your teapot and cups with care – they must match the tea.

"Thai Nguyen Province's pure tea, which has a dark green colour, should be served in light green pots and cups, lotus-scented tea in white cups," Xuan says.

"The cup also change according to the season. In winter it should have a bottom and rim of equal , so it doesn't lose its heat and the drinker can hold it inside his palm. But in summer, tea should be served in a cup with a larger rim, so it can cool quickly."

All the pots and cups are cleaned in boiling water, which gets rid of the dirt and warms them up. Dried tea leaves are put inside the pot, which is then filled with boiled water and covered.

More boiled water is poured over the pot, so that it is heated both inside and outside and the leaves are thoroughly stewed.

Young tea researcher, Hoang Anh Suong, says Vietnamese tea is a sophisticated art which takes lots of time to master. However, Vietnamese tea may be enjoyed in a very simple manner.

"Only boiled green tea leaves can bring people closer to an informal conversation and help them escape their thirst," he says.

Tea can be divided into three kinds with different advantages including dried tea leaves, tea combined with herbal remedies and tea scented with flowers.

Tea evangelists Suong and Xuan say they are only too willing to help people understand more about the characteristics of Vietnamese tea, which occupies a unique position in national culture. — VNS