We continue our subject on Chinese teas produced in Asia, with Vietnamese tea, specifically Pu-erh tea produced in Vietnam. We know Pu-erh tea is a type of Chinese fermented tea originating from the Yunnan province. Yunnan has a millennium-long history with tea, which has exerted a profound influence on China's neighboring countries, Vietnam in particular. Not to mention, the geographical and administrative boundaries in the region were not the same as they are today. So, let's explore the culture and legacy of Vietnamese tea, with a focus on Vietnamese Pu-erh tea.
"In the gentle swirl of tea leaves and water,
There is a magic that cannot be bought or bartered.
The fragrance of tea, so delicate and refined,
Brings a touch of heaven to the mind."
"The Art of Tea" by Nguyen Khuyen
The history of Vietnamese tea
Tea has a long and rich history in Vietnam, dating back over a thousand years. It deeply intertwines with the country's traditions, social practices, and economy. Tea cultivation and consumption played a significant role in the country's history and identity.
Historically, it was the elite and aristocracy in Vietnam who primarily consumed tea. They valued it for its taste and health benefits. Over time, tea became more accessible to the general population. Today, it is a common drink throughout the country.
Tea has also been an essential part of Vietnamese social practices and ceremonies. In the past, tea was often used as a form of currency during the Nguyen dynasty and was an important part of the country's trade and commerce. Tea was also a vital part of traditional Vietnamese ceremonies and rituals, often served as a gesture of hospitality and respect.
Vietnamese tea - Legends vs reality
The origin of Vietnamese tea is not clear. There are claims it was introduced by traders from Yunnan, China, during the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th century). From then on, tea cultivation in Vietnam developed into unique traditions and practices with a rich folklore legacy. A local legend about the origin of tea tells about Thanh Giong, a Vietnamese folk hero. Thanh Giong was a young boy who defeated an invading army thanks to the strength he gained from the tea. The story often serves as an example of the close connection between tea and Vietnamese culture.
Another local legend related to tea involves the village of Thai Nguyen, the said birthplace of Vietnamese tea culture. A group of monks discovered a wild tea plant growing in the mountains near the village and began cultivating it. Over time, tea became popular among the locals and spread throughout the region. Eventually, it became an important part of Vietnamese culture and cuisine.
Vietnamese tea ceremony in Hanoi
Most popular Vietnamese tea types.
Tea is an essential part of Vietnamese culture, with the northern and central regions of the country being the primary tea-growing areas.
According to the Vietnam Tea Association's 2018 report, black tea accounts for most of Vietnam's tea production, making up 52% of the total output, while green tea accounts for 43%. Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho, Tuyen Quang in the north, and Lam Dong in the central highlands are the main regions that produce green tea.
Oolong tea was first introduced to Vietnam in the 19th century by Chinese immigrants who brought tea plants with them. Today, it is grown in various regions, including Lam Dong, Moc Chau, Lai Chau, and Ha Giang. Most Oolong tea produced in Vietnam is made from imported Oolong trees, mainly Taiwanese varietals.
White tea is another popular variety produced in Vietnam. It is grown in the northern provinces of Thai Nguyen and Yen Bai and in the southern regions of Lam Dong and Binh Thuan.
Yellow tea is a rare and unique type of tea in Vietnam and is only produced in small quantities in the northern province of Lao Cai.
Pu-erh tea, a traditional variety of tea, is mainly grown in Ha Giang, Yen Bai, Son La, Dien Bien, and Lao Cai provinces.
Vietnamese tea: Sheng Pu-erh
Although Vietnam produces several tea types, incl. green and red tea, it has formed a lasting local tradition of Pu-erh tea production and consumption through the ages. In Vietnam, Pu-erh tea has been traditionally consumed by ethnic minority groups in the northern mountainous regions of the country. The Hmong, Dao, and Thai communities, in particular, have a long history of cultivating and consuming Pu-erh tea as part of their cultural and social practices. The main production is in the provinces of Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, and Son La in Northern Vietnam. These regions have a similar climate and geography to Yunnan, making them ideal for growing large-leafed tea trees.
One of the traditional customs associated with Pu-erh tea in these communities is sharing tea between friends and family members. It is common for people to gather around a pot of Pu-erh tea and take turns pouring and drinking tea while engaging in conversation and socializing. This practice is a way to strengthen social bonds and build relationships.
Another traditional practice associated with Pu-erh tea in these communities is offering tea to guests as a sign of hospitality and respect. When guests visit a household, the host welcomes them with a pot of Pu-erh tea. They pour and serve it as a gesture of goodwill and friendship.
Pu-erh tea is also used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and reportedly has various health benefits. People use it to treat multiple ailments like digestive issues, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. It is also believed to have detoxifying properties and is sometimes used in detox diets and weight loss programs.
Vietnamese tea: local customs about Pu-erh tea
In Vietnam, several local tribes have been growing and processing tea for centuries, with a deep connection to the land and the traditional tea cultivation and production practices. Some of them include the Hmong, Thai, and Dao tribes, primarily found in the mountainous regions of Northern Vietnam.
These tribes have developed different methods of tea cultivation and processing, often using sustainable techniques passed down through generations. The Hmong people, for example, are known for cultivating tea in small, terraced gardens on steep slopes, using natural fertilizers and organic pest control methods.
Tea plays an important role in local minorities' daily lives and social practices. Family members and friends share it as a gesture of hospitality and respect. Tea is also part of traditional ceremonies and rituals, such as weddings and funerals. It is also a cultural identity and a heritage symbol.
Comparing Chinese and Vietnamese Pu-erh
Regarding taste, Vietnamese Sheng Pu-erh is often described as having a smoother and more mellow flavor than Chinese Sheng Pu-erh, which tends to have a stronger and more complex flavor profile. Vietnamese Sheng also has a subtle sweetness and nutty flavor, while Chinese Sheng can have a more pronounced bitterness and astringency.
In terms of aroma, Vietnamese Sheng is often described as having a light, floral scent, while Chinese Sheng has a more pronounced and complex aroma, with hints of camphor, fruit, and flowers.
Production wise, Vietnamese Sheng is often produced using traditional, small-scale methods, while Chinese Sheng is often produced using large scale, industrial methods. Vietnamese Sheng also tends to be less expensive compared to Chinese Sheng, making it more accessible to a wider range of tea drinkers.
Overall, while both Vietnamese Sheng Pu-erh and Chinese Sheng Pu-erh are fermented teas made from the same tea plant, there are some differences in taste, and aroma between the two. These differences can be attributed to terroir, and tea processing techniques.
Famous Pu-erh tea-producing regions in Vietnam - Thượng Sơn, Hà Giang
Thượng Sơn is an area in the province of Hà Giang, located in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam. The area includes several mountains, and many tea gardens are at an altitude of 1300-1800m. The area is known for producing high-quality Sheng Pu-erh tea from the leaves of old tea trees in the surrounding mountains.
Sheng Pu-erh tea production in Thượng Sơn is a labor-intensive process that requires great skill and attention to detail. The farmers pick tea leaves by hand from tea trees that can be over 100 years old. They then carefully process the leaves to preserve their natural flavor and aroma.
The production of Sheng Pu-erh tea in Thượng Sơn is closely tied to the region's natural environment. The area lies over 1,000 meters above sea level, with ideal growing conditions for the tea trees. The area is also rich in biodiversity, with various plants and animals living in the surrounding mountains.
In recent years, Thượng Sơn has become a popular destination for tourists interested in learning about traditional tea production methods and tasting high-quality Sheng Pu-erh tea.