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In quest of a long-lost premium tea brand in Vietnam

Thursday, February 19, 2015, 15:03 GMT+7
In quest of a long-lost premium tea brand in Vietnam
A century-old Shan Tuyet (snow) tea tree in the northern province of Yen Bai

One of Vietnam’s finest tea brands, which has been missing from the country’s tea map since the mid-20th century, still lingers in the mind of local tea enthusiasts and is being revived step by step.

Man Hao tea, indeginious to the northernmost province of Ha Giang, remains one of the country’s best and costliest brands.

It was exclusive to royalty, the elite and literati in feudal times, and was deemed one of local men’s three refined pastimes during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The historically, culturally-rich tea

After numerous historical ups and downs, Man Hao settled itself as one of the country’s first-class teas in 1895, according to an in-depth article which Trinh Quang Dung – a local tea authority – sent to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

The tea was mostly produced from century-old Shan Tuyet tea trees, which thrive in the northern mountainous provinces of Ha Giang, Lai Chau and Yen Bai.

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Two Mong ethnic women are seen climbing atop a Shan Tuyet tea tree to pick its leaves. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Grown in mountainous areas which are between 800 meters and 2,400 meters above sea level and exposed to a cold, misty climate, the trees yield large grayish-white tea buds, which boast a white downy, snow-like layer.

It is the white fluffy layer that gave the tea its other name of “Shan Tuyet” (snow).

The trees were typically cultivated organically without the use of chemicals or fertilizers and were usually processed manually by members of the Mong and Dao ethnic minorities.

Though today’s Shan Tuyet tea is still available on the local market, its quality lags behind that of the original Man Hao tea.

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Two Dao ethnic women are pictured picking leaves from Shan Tuyet trees which perch precariously on a hillside. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Unrivaled quality    Man Hao tea was always associated with Dien Thai, a famous brand founded by the Nguyen Dinh lineage back in the 17th century, Dung said in his article. The pair were inseparable then, forming the hugely popular Man Hao-Dien Thai tea brand.

Seven generations of Nguyen Dinh were involved in trading the tea brand in Thang Long, the former name of Hanoi, Dung noted after referring to their lineage records.

According to Vu Dinh Tuyen, the third-generation descendant of Chinh Thai Tea Co., artisans hand-picked and steamed young buds.   

After drying the buds, the artisans put them in big jars and covered the jars with large banana leaves.

The jars were left for three or four years so the tea leaves would lose their pungent smell and acrid taste and attain certain sponginess.

Production dates should always be clearly specified to ensure the tea’s quality.

Man Hao tea boasted a mild fragrance and produced a clear liquid.

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Century-old Shan Tuyet tea trees are seen budding in this Tuoi Tre file photo. 

According to archival documents, the tea was typically used by Hanoi artisans, who embalmed the first-rate tea with lotus scent in one of the capital’s long-standing traditions.

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A tea maker is shown picking leaves from a Shan Tuyet tea tree. Photo: Tuoi Tre

However, today’s embalmers tend to replace Man Hao-Dien Thai tea with its lesser-quality counterparts which are produced in the northern provinces of Phu Tho and Thai Nguyen, though the latter brands are also considered some of the country’s best.

Embalming tea with lotus scent is a time-consuming process. Nice, large lotuses must be picked from the lake before sunrise, as sunshine diffuses the scent.

Tea embalmers then remove the petals so they can access the seeds at the top of the flowers’ stamen.

They then alternate each layer of tea with a layer of seeds. The embalmed tea is later dried with a special kind of coal and stir-fried to retain the lotus aroma for as long as possible.

A kilogram of tea needs about one kilogram of lotus seeds, or 1,300 to 1,500 flowers. The embalmed tea is ready for use about two weeks later.

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Two people pick up lotuses to embalm tea with. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Sophisticated tea drinking rituals

Refined tea connoisseurs habitually adopt sophisticated drinking rites, particularly with those of exceptional quality like Man Hao tea.

The Nguyen Dinh lineage records vividly depict a subtle, multiple-phase tea relishing session adopted by a local governor and his wife in the 17th century. 

Their drinking utensils were specially crafted from brass, silver and porcelain. Even the coal used to heat the stove was made from century-old tree trunks.

It takes a discerning eye and practice to make sure the pinch of tea would suffice the number of drinkers, otherwise the finished tea would get too thick or diluted, which would undermine its taste.

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A refined set of tea drinking utensils. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Before having a taste of the tea, the couple took sips of water to cleanse their mouths of undesired residue which might distract them from the tea’s real taste.

The couple slowly smelled the tea’s mild fragrance and took small sips one by one. The pleasantly sweet tea slowly sank into their tongues and throats and left a unique lingering taste.

They went on to indulge in the second tea water, which was produced from the same pinch of tea. This is the best moment in the tea drinking session.

According to local tea experts, maiden Man Hao tea water is as fresh and alluring as a virgin, while the second tea water, which manifests all of the tea’s quintessence, is likened to the beauty of a mature, married woman.

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One of Vietnamese tea lovers' sophisticated way to relish premium tea. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Revival efforts

Archival documents have it that in parallel with numerous historical ups and downs, the Man Hao tea brand also went through alternating periods of success and decline.

Amidst the Man Hao-Dien Thai tea brand’s recession during the first half of the 20th century, the wife of Gia Thai (1868-1935), the seventh-generation descendant of the Nguyen Dinh lineage, made her final attempts to revive her in-laws’ century-old tea trading business, to little avail.

The family’s business died out soon after that and the renowned Man Hao tea brand fell into oblivion then.

In the 21st century, however, several individuals have made further attempts to revive the legendary Man Hao tea, with certain success.

They have produced similar versions of the tea, which are widely available in such northwestern provinces as Lao Cai, home to popular Sa Pa resort town.

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An elaborate way to relish delectable tea. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Recently, the director of Linh Duong Tea Co., a local tea producer, who is infatuated with famous old tea brands has come up with an almost perfect replica of Man Hao tea.

The version is expected to be available on the local market in the time to come.

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