Shan Tuyet tea – a journey from "cloud paradise" to Hanoi’s streets

Wednesday, 2018-10-10 08:23:23
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Collecting tea leaves in Ta Xua.
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NDO – Stepping into an old apartment building near Vu Ngoc Phan street (Hanoi), I immediately savoured the aroma of tea mixed with champak flowers. There were several guests sat at tea tables, chatting softly as if they did not want the sound to melt the fragrance of the tea and flowers. Vu Thien Tan – the owner of the tea house – prepared to marinate tea with champak flowers. In each champak blooming season, extending from early summer until late October, the special tea leaves from the high mountains are associated with the sweetness of the champak flowers’ aroma that could conquer any heart.

Leaving Hanoi for mountainous tea

Tan poured me a cup of tea. The green tea colour and a special tea taste left a prolonged harmonious combination of both bitter and sweet on the tip of the tongue. I have never tasted such a special cup of tea, with a clear colour but leaving behind a strange aftertaste. Enjoying that aftertaste, I heard Tan talk about the charm that brought her to the tea and the journey to bring the tea from the high cloud covered mountains to Hanoi.

Several years ago, when Tan still ran her own business, she printed visiting cards for a tea shop. Tan was curious had told her husband to go there. The tea shop was simple, but the tea was exceptional good. Tan was impressed, even as her business was facing difficulties, she immediately thought about making tea.

Luckily Tan discovered the ancient Shan Tuyet tea trees – a specialty in Ta Xua commune, Bac Yen district, in the northern mountainous province of Son La. Ta Xua is dubbed the "cloud paradise" as it is formed by three majestic peaks, covered by clouds all year round like a corner of paradise. Young people often go to Ta Xua to "hunt” clouds but very few of them notice that there are ancient Shan Tuyet tea trees hidden in the clouds.

At that time, Tan came to Ta Xua to seek an address with the largest number of Shan Tuyet tea trees, but the indigenous people gave her the wrong way and Tan could not find the right address. At that moment, Tan saw an old tea tree and under its shade was an old ethnic man, collecting herbs. The elderly man said this tea tree had belonged to his family for a long time. He told Tan to wait till his son returned home to discuss the tea business. His son – Mua A Khu – a young Mong man with progressive economic thinking – was willing to cooperate with Tan to make tea. This area has many ancient Shan Tuyet trees, but the local people still do not know how to exploit them properly to increase the value of the special product.

In each tea season, Tan returned to the highland and stayed for months in the house of the Mong people of Mua A Khu and his father, to pick tea leaves and dry tea as a true native. With her skills and knowledge gained, Tan guided locals on the right way to collect and preserve tea leaves to turn them into high-priced goods, instead of just a local drink solely for self-sufficiency.

I have crossed many almost vertical slopes to Ta Xua peak to hunt clouds and see the Shan Tuyet tea trees at the top of the mountain, hidden in weeds and misty clouds. Sometimes there were several Mong women climbing the trees to collect tea leaves. These tea trees were like beautiful girls but lonely in the high mountains that people do not know of.

The raw processed Shan Tuyet tea, sold in local stores in Ta Xua for only a few hundred thousand VND a kg, turn into quite a different product in Tan's hands, and is now nearly ten times the price compared to the raw product. This helps the local people to earn more income and Tan also has quality products to bring back to Hanoi, while Shan Tuyet trees now seem to be less "unhappy".

But the good results only came from a tough journey that is full of elaboration. Tan directly picks tea leaves according to the principle of picking only one tea bud with a young tea leaf. Then, the tea leaves will be dried on large pans on the fire. Tan stirs raw tea leaves with her bare hands to feel the heat and dryness of the leaves. It seems that there is an added grace in the fragrance of the tea when the hands of women are blended into it, as opposed to the tea that is dried with idle bamboo chopsticks. After the drying stage, Tan will then select each dried tea leaf that does not met standard and remove it; this takes time and requires elaboration like picking husks off the rice. The standard tea will be incubated in jars for a better flavour.

Tan said: "Ta Xua tea season has ended, a week earlier than last year. My legs and hands have got familiar to the local terrain and new work. Tea - fire - people keep pace with each other. Many things to tell but after all, the feeling and the experience have passed; only the tea buds left after bathing in the clouds, wind, sun, rain and fog, and turning through the fire and human hands. I brew tea for about two weeks because I want to make the tea “rest” after such changes, then it will get a better infused taste.”

The careful tea making produces Tan only about 70 kg of dried tea each season, which seems too small compared to the usual way traders buying tea by truck, with the weight unit in tonnes. Tan makes tea through taking loving care of each tea leaf, that’s why she cannot collect the tea volume in tonnes and cannot earn much money, even if she is still living in a rented house. Her tea will be shared with tea lovers in Tan’s House – the house I'm sitting in here. It is a small space which its owner does not want to advertise and introduce much about her tea. If you want to go there to enjoy tea, you have to make a reservation via phone call.

Tan surprised me when saying that actually using her clean tea is very cheap. Each kg of quality Shan Tuyet tea costs about VND1.8 million (US$77), but every 100gr can be used for 10 teapots; each pot can be use up to five times but the tea is still good enough. For that reason, each tea pot costs only a few tens of thousands of dong. Nowadays, many young people have come to love tea, considering it not just an agricultural product, but also a cultural feature with many typical depths.

The philosophy about a good tea cup

I have seen a big world of tea when referring to the tea course that Tan often offers to young people. Only about the water used to make tea, it is an all-day long story. Particularly, the chapter on the tools used when enjoying tea covers various issues related to sitting, facial expressions, eye contact, and the operations on the tea table; it also takes up to three hours to learn. In the world of tea lovers, there are people who own thousands of teapots but they are still not yet satisfied. But in the world of tea, the top of the elaboration and complexity is the simplicity.

Tan offered me a cup of cold tea and confided: "Tan’s House has no menu, because the good tea offered here is often less in quantity, with unstable volumes and following each season. Before we make tea, we ask questions related to your health condition and tea taste habits, and based on the weather during the tea ceremony at that day, we choose the appropriate tea to mix for you. It seems to be complicated but actually it is a very comfortable conversation; your mind will be very relaxed to enjoy the cup of tea in your hands. I remembered a group of friends after receiving a tea cup they asked: "How do you hold the tea cup right?" then I answered, it is the way you feel the most natural when holding the cup, not right but not wrong. Everyone laughed with joy after that.”

A tea drinker at Tan’s House shared that, when you learn of the good of tea, people realise that they had enjoyed tea in an improper way. But maybe when you have gone through the whole year many times, drinking many kinds of tea and enjoying many different tastes, you may know how to love the light taste of a cup of pure water.

Until then, I enlighten that to have good tea does not only depend on "nhất nước, nhì trà, tam pha, tứ ấm" (the first and most important aspect in making good tea is the quality of water, then the second is the quality of tea, the way to make tea and the quality of the teapot). A good tea cup is tea that perfectly holds your mind in the present, not regretting the past and not worrying about the future. You can only enjoy the best qualities of life when you know how to live in the present. It is the "nhất kỳ nhất hội" (one time, one meeting) element around the tea table that Tan values, (meaning in one's life, this meeting can happen only once, so we need to respect each moment); just like Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's verse:

“Chén trà trong hai tay

Chánh niệm nâng tròn đầy

Thân và tâm an trú

Bây giờ ở đây.”

“This cup of tea in my two hands

Mindfulness is held perfectly

My mind and body dwell in the very here and now.”

PHUNG NGUYEN