Farmers brew sweet success from rare tea

Sweetness supersedes and quickly removes any bitterness from the tea, a specialty from the mountainous province of Yen Bai in northern Vietnam, 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 "Thanh you" gift she has received from a friend – a crystalline glass jar containing around 100g of shantuyet 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 shantuyet 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 flavor. 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 shantuyet.

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 Vietnam. 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 homemade 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 shantuyet 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 shantuyet 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 shantuyet tea cost as much as 3.5 millionVND (170 USD), 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 Vietnam."

Figures show that Vietnam has around 7,500 hectares of ancient shantuyet 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.

Source: VNA

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