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Vietnamese Tea: A Start on the Rise

April 7th, 2024


"Imagine if the wines of the Loire Valley were still 'undiscovered.'"

-- This is perhaps the only reasonable analogy to describe the caliber of high-altitude, wild, and semi-wild teas which are produced in the mountains of northern Vietnam.


To drink a cup of Bạch Trà Tiên, or white tea made from wild, high mountain tea trees, known locally as “Fairy Trees,” is to encounter a flavor found almost nowhere else on the planet. It is subtly floral, clear, light, and sweet -- dancing across the tongue the way light moves over water. One description of the taste characterized the tea as an “enchantment,” something ephemeral, yet whose flavor lingers long after your last cup. Hồng Trà Tiên, or the red tea version, carries a similar sweetness alongside a subtle fullness that scarcely seems possible. It is both tea and myth steeped into being.


White Tea, Tea Mountains of northern Vietnam, and sharing red tea. Photographs: Matic Javornic


AND YET, VIETNAMESE TEA IS STILL NOT WELL KNOWN

INTERNATIONALLY OR WITHIN WIDER TEA CIRCLES. 


On the global stage, Vietnam consistently ranks between the world’s fifth and seventh largest exporter of tea. Despite having some of the oldest, high-altitude tea trees in the world, the country is primarily known for producing lower quality, low-bush varietal tea that is sent in vast quantities to the Middle East, and Russia, as well as China, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Within the global tea market, Vietnamese tea is often considered to be “mass-produced,” “low-processed,” or “raw” style tea that cannot compete with the refined flavors out of China, Taiwan, Japan, and elsewhere.

(Spend any amount of time in Vietnamese tea country, and you will begin to understand that this misperception is akin to defining the beer brewed in the United States by Bud-Lite, Coors, and Busch as compared with the craft beers of Europe).


Processing tea and Tea Fields. Photographs: Matic Javornik


“Mountain tea smells sweet” -- the explanation given when asked how drying

trays of tea could produce such a high-quality aroma.

 

Tea production and culture in Vietnam has a history that spans well over three thousand years. It is a heritage steeped past the point of human memory. The current challenges plaguing the Vietnamese tea industry, however, are in large part a legacy of the events and struggles of the past century.

 

Looking to replicate Colonial British success in the Darjeeling and Assam regions India, in 1882 French Colonizers established tea nurseries and research stations across the country with the goal to cultivate high yield varieties of tea. Over the next five decades, the French would transform Vietnam’s tea growing regions from small familial farms to large industrialized tea plantations and estates. The tea of export became low bush varieties - heavily trimmed and machine processed - sold to Europe, French-North Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, and parts of China. High growing, mountain tea trees, primarily, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, var. shan, and others were largely ignored, overlooked, or removed.

 

The nearly endless series of conflict from World War II, Vietnam’s Anti-French Resistance War, the Resistance War Against America, and then the War Against Chinese Expansion, spanning the 1940’s to 1990, would largely divert the nation’s attention away from the tea industry. Instead of stalling production, however, Vietnamese farmed tea acreage and yields continued to grow despite near insurmountable obstacles. Throughout the 1950’s much of Vietnamese tea was exported to China and then later to Russia before expanding to include other countries. Early governmental policies of national tea plantations and co-operations were, over time, replaced by the private, smaller tea farms that are more frequently found throughout the country today.



A Market Moved On

An Industry Exploited

 

Nowadays, tea is grown in over half of Vietnam’s provinces and sold in most countries around the world. It accounts for 211 million USD in export value, and many market experts believe that it has the potential to grow even further.[1] Despite these promising signs, however, Vietnamese tea continues to face a host of challenges.

 

The first is that traditional tea markets such as those in China, Taiwan, Japan, and India, have all had longer to establish their export teas, product standards, and brand reputations. The “high-quality” global tea market is not saturated, but it is dominated by teas from these countries. Furthermore, China, Taiwan, Japan, and India have largely worked to refine production techniques and types of tea that they produce (sometimes over centuries). By sharp contrast, loose-leaf, easily processed green tea accounts for 90-94% of Vietnam’s total tea export. In terms of markets for lower quality, mass-produced tea, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are all major competitors that also look to serve a wider tea market in the Middle East, Africa, South America and beyond.

 

The idea that Vietnam only produces low grade green tea is a belief that has been perpetuated within wider tea circles and has created in a number of challenges for the Vietnamese tea industry as a whole. High demands for fresh leaves over the past half century has resulted, among other things, in pesticide use, inconsistent agricultural practices, poor farmer education, and fewer avenues for larger-scale processing facilities within Vietnam. The industry’s reputation also serves to hamper the ability of high-quality Vietnamese tea farmers and producers to sell and market their products.


Processing tea, Tea Fields, drinking Hồng Trà Tiên Photographs: Matic Javornik

“If this tea was from China, it would be one of the most expensive red teas on the market.” – This writer’s reflection on drinking Hồng Tra Tiên or Red Fairy Tea. 

The easy solution might be to let Vietnamese teas speak for themselves, however, it is rarely that simple. So much of the final quality and flavor in tea comes down to processing.

 

Although it is often discouraged within the coffee industry, “tea blending” is a practice widely employed by large scale multi-national tea companies who will source the tea from Vietnam, but in the process of “blending” it with teas from other countries and regions, obscure the role and quality of Vietnamese tea.

 

In recent years, especially in the realms of “higher quality tea,” Vietnamese tea farms have seen a staggering number of investments by international investors from China, Japan, and Taiwan who import their own machinery and tea experts. These companies will use Vietnamese labor to harvest and source the tea, but then “process” or export the tea to make a final product that is not considered or marketed as Vietnamese or entirely Vietnamese in origin.



 In a rather famous instance of this, in 2017 a company in Taiwan won second place in an oolong tea competition in Nantou county, using leaves from Vietnam and passing them off as Taiwanese.[2] Outside of the realms of oolong, within the Pu’er industry in China, there is a well-established, if little talked about, practice of sourcing lightly processed leaves from Vietnam as well as Laos and then pressing the tea into cakes within Yunnan and selling them as “Chinese”.[3] Because of the age and quality of the leaves, these cakes will oftentimes be marketed as ancient wild tea which fetches far higher prices among buyers.

 

In all of these instances, it is important to stress, the tea pickers and tea farmers in Vietnam receive very little credit or compensation for the tea they produce. They work long hours for low wages, often resorting to practices that are harmful to the trees themselves as well as the future of the tea industry.[4] Although the tea grown in Northern Vietnam is some of the best in the world, for the reasons above, as well as others, it remains largely unknown to an international market and audience.

Companies from China, Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere will often source Vietnamese leaves and then “blend” or “process” them either with leaves from other countries or with outside machinery, often, ultimately, denying Vietnam the final credit on the tea. 

When you couple a shorter time period to refine production techniques and styles that define the high quality tea industry; little official brand recognition in a tough international market; other countries taking a piece of the proverbial pie and an oversized portion of the credit; industrialized and detrimental harvesting practices; and the dual challenges of globalization and tourism leaving fewer young people wanting to work in tea; you can begin to see the scope of what the Vietnamese tea industry is grappling with.

 


Photographs: Matic Javornik


Signs of Promise


Despite these challenges, the future for Vietnam tea is a bright one. Global interest in, and demand for, high quality tea around the world is growing. Markets in Europe, the United States, and South America have huge untapped potential. It is worth pointing out that these future consumers are also very open to styles and flavors that might differ in ways from the classic flavors out of China, Taiwan, Japan, and India – almost akin to preferring wines from Argentina over French wines. Vietnamese tea is also starting to make a splash at global tea competitions winning numerous awards. Meanwhile, local organizations, such as the Baiyue Tea Society, are working to help educate tea farmers and producers about safe practices, equitable wages, and avenues for marketing their tea and reaching wider audiences. Last but not least, there is the tea itself. The wild, high mountain tea from northern Vietnam is of a sweetness and caliber that it can hardly stay a secret to the world much longer. The goal now becomes to ensure that the people and the region that make this tea so special are also preserved and recognized.

Sources:


Written by: Sam Jacobson

Photographs by: Photograph: Matic Javornik, @matic_javornik & Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

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