By Frank Miller
Vietnamese tea is not well-known among tea enthusiasts, but they may be drinking it nonetheless in the blends they buy in their markets and tea shops. The bulk of Vietnam tea in the West is used in blending. This may soon change if the Vietnamese government, local tea promotion groups and tea traders continue their push for export volume growth and improvements in cup quality.
At home in Vietnam
Tea is widespread in Vietnam. It is farmed or occurs in the wild in 30 of Vietnam’s 53 provinces. The prolific northern growing region stretches from Ha Giang on the border with China, west to Dien Bien Phu on the border with Lao and south to Nghe An province on the Gulf of Tonkin. This vast area of mountains and midlands boasts soil suitable for farming tea; there is a seasonal monsoon and elevation from just above sea level at Hanoi to over 3,000 meters at Mt. Fan-si-pan, the highest point in SE Asia.
The north also contains tea plantations, including several newly-developed cultivars. Total output of the greater northern region is about 469,272 tons, almost half coming from the north midland close to Hanoi.A wild experience
A trip to Vietnam’s remote wild tea forests is thrilling, as well as educational. One itinerary heads northeast out of the provincial capital of Ha Giang on Vietnam Highway 181 to Yen Minh, the last town before the Vietnam-China border and takes Highway 4C almost to the border crossing at Pho Bang. Travelers encounter waterfalls reminiscent of those in Sri Lanka’s Nuwara Eliya region with vistas stretching endlessly across valley and mountain, tropical and subtropical jungle. At the local tea factory in Yen Minh, the trail is off-road, vertical and treacherous. Transport is by mud bike, the trail deeply-rutted and clotted with mud. The air is redolent with the humid aroma of virgin forest. As the elevation rises, clouds move in to envelop the traveler.
At about 1,700 m, a tiny settlement of the Dao ethnic group, one of Vietnam’s 54 recognized minorities, materializes out of the thin air. Wild tea trees planted five to ten generations ago, are scattered all about. Smoke finds its way lazily out chinks in the long house roof as we sit for tea made from a stash of home-processed leaf. It is Shan Tuyet, "mountain-snow" tea, a wild –crafted type with large silvery leaf buds, one of Vietnam’s trademark teas. The broad leaf is well-twisted, dark green, with a fair number of large, silvery tea buds, indicating a late spring flush. The liquor poured into old juice glasses is of a rich orangey hue, smoky, with an organic aroma. Like quite a few of Vietnam wild green teas it exhibits a frank bitterness, layered with smoke. The fresh vegetal nuances do not keep long; there is a tendency to fire these teas insufficiently, leaving spongy leaves with too much moisture.
Other important tea-producing regions of the north include Yen Bai, Lao Cai and Bac Can, but far and away the most prolific is the midlands located just northwest of Hanoi. Two locales are particularly evocative of quality in Vietnam tea circles: Phu Tho, an area where some of the first tea was planted, and Thai Nguyen. The province of Thai Nguyen at an average elevation of about 300-500 m., is a green tea growing and manufacturing area with highly suitable soil and up to 2,000mm of precipitation. In this transition area between mountains and low lands, over 90% of the tea farmers grow the local broad-leaf green tea variety, which yields good quality at 5,000-6,000 kg per hectare. New clonal types, such as LDP1, LDP2, PH1 and #777 are slowly being introduced by the Northern Mountainous Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute (formerly, Phu Ho Tea Research Institute) for higher yields, higher quality or improved adaptation to poor soil quality.
Small holder Tran Van Thai and his wife give a warm welcome to visitors persistent enough tohire a car and make it out to their picturesque 8-hectare tea garden. Tran is a third generation farmer who seems to revel in the natural routine of tea-making. He and his wife process their tea in their home, where it is fired in a metal drum over a wood fire. The leaves tumble like tiny bits of clothing in an old drier, a promising blur of green. Tran occasionally reaches in and scoops up a bit of hot tea leaf to gauge the temperature. A beguiling, sweet grassy scent spreads throughout the room. After several minutes the tea maker catches a handful of leaf and gently manipulates it with his finger tips, judging its temperature, moisture content, color, friability; then, the motor is reversed, the metal vanes inside the drum screw the tea forward and into a bamboo basket below the oven. Tran’s wife cools the leaf with an electric fan as if it were fresh-cooked sushi rice.
An old Chinese rolling machine takes the tea for a lengthy cycle of mechanical crushing and twisting; then, it is ready for a final firing. A sample reveals a graceful gray-green, small-medium dry leaf, well-twisted and fully-fired, a rich, vegetal dark green infusion with a promising, delicate, greenish-yellow liquor. However, it lacked the promised sweetness and freshness.Hanoi tea party
While Hanoi is a heavy tea-drinking town, there are few retail tea houses dedicated to offering a diversity of teas to sip or purchase for home. One exception is a hidden, rather understated jewel of a tea house, the Truong Xuan tea shop in the central Dong Da district, close by the Temple of Literature. Their tea list offers many of country’s most popular loose-leaf teas like the excellent Tra Sen, Hanoi West Lake Lotus Tea (US$3.50/pot), made from Ha Giang or Thai Nguyen green tea. It is scented with the stamens of hand-picked Lotus flowers from Hanoi’s West Lake. Less expensive is the popular Tra Hoa Mai, Jasmine tea (US$2.50/pot) and Tra Hoa Moc, Osmanthus tea (US$1.75/pot). Two Shan Tuyet, Snow teas are offered from Ha Giang, along with several midlands teas from Thai Nguyen (both US$1.45-2.50/pot). Down memory lane
The history of commercial tea cultivation in Vietnam began with the French, who invaded Vietnam in 1858 and remained until 1954. French agriculturists, scientists and administrators laid the formal, scientific basis for the tea industry. Shortly after their arrival, they conducted a series of botanical surveys and in 1890, more than 30 years after the British established tea in Darjeeling and Assam, built the nation’s first tea factory at Tinh Cuong, Phu Tho province and a research center in Phu Tho, Bao Loc and Lam Dong province, near Dalat.
Between 1925 and 1930 French investment in the tea industry in the south initiated a period of rapid expansion. The period from 1940 to 1954, when the French left Vietnam, the tea industry was in flux, but support came from the Soviet Union and China.
In 1958 the total area under tea was 30,000 hectares. The period of the American war was difficult for the tea industry in the south, but in the north it continued to slowly evolve. By 1977, Vietnam produced 17,896 tons of dry tea. By 1985, this had grown to 25,391 tons.
Today, Vietnam produces a total of 165,000 tons of made tea, from 131,487 hectares (2008). Productivity has climbed from .80 tons/ha in 1998 to 1.43 tons today. Export value grew from USD 44,840,250 to 155,000,000, reflecting dramatic increases in planting, the use of agricultural chemicals, the development of new tea varieties and economic liberalization, which began in the late 1980s and continues today.
Seen another way, since 1995, Vietnam’s tea production has more than doubled and exports have increased almost 300%. Taiwan and Japan are the biggest Asian importers of Vietnamese green tea; Russia and Iraq have been important buyers, as well. Vietnam now ranks as the world’s 5th largest tea exporting country, dueling it out with Indonesia, its biggest competitor for first place within ASEAN.
Neighborly competition or dumping?
Exponential growth in tea exports is good for business, but can threaten neighbors. In 2008, Vietnam tea exports to India topped 2,000 tons, much of which entered duty-free. Indian producers cried, "foul," because much of this lower-quality, cheaper, duty-free leaf is blended with India leaf and re-exported as "Indian." The scale of growth sought for tea is reminiscent of the exponential growth in Vietnam coffee. In the 1970s, Vietnam was not a large coffee exporter (73,000 bags). By 1986, it had replaced Columbia as the world’s #2 producer. Vietnam has played the coffee bean-counting game successfully; is it about to pull a tea bag out of it’s hat? The US$1 billion plan
In 2007, the Vietnam tea industry was given an export revenue target of USUS$1 billion to be reached by 2020. How wise is an economic goal of that magnitude given issues related to product quality, purity, sustainability, organic certification, labor relations, fair trade, etc. There is the impact of the recent global economic recession, as well, affecting the vitality of export markets and the availability of credit.
Vietnam Tea Association (VITAS) chairman, Nguyen Kim Phong, has spoken to these issues. He has fairly pointed out that the country’s approximately 700 small-to-medium sized tea processing enterprises suffer from capital shortages and may not be able to expand facilities, improve plant stocks, etc. There is a shortage of collateral, assets such as equipment, buildings and land that banks can accept as security for loans. A contraction of credit has put pressure on interest rates. The tea industry faces a serious shortage of skilled labor and management.
It takes years to gear up an agriculturally-based industry for greater output. As the experience in China shows, growth is often achieved at the expense of food quality, safety and purity. In order to reach a goal as ambitious as US$1 billion, the industry needs a plan of action. That plan does not exist.Practicality and Idealism
The Vietnam tea industry is a mixture of public sector (government-owned) tea companies, notably VINTEA, private sector factories which emerged from state ownership during the 1990s and small-scale enterprises, including tiny small-holder farms and home tea factories. Some of the large tea companies own their own gardens and factories, but the prevailing model is small and medium-sized operations acquiring fresh tea from contract farmers. The factories set the prices they are willing to pay the farmers. There are no tea auctions.
Knitting these disparate elements together, providing a unified voice for the industry and lobbying to promote the interests of the nation’s tea enterprises is the brief of the Vietnam Tea Association, VITAS. Founded in 1988, one of the first private associations in the country, VITAS represents over 100 member-companies, large and small tea enterprises, including Ha Giang Tea in the mountainous north; Thai Nguyen Tea Factory in the midlands; Finlay Vietnam and Future Generation in Hanoi; Lam Dong Tea Company in the south; Saigon Tea and Unilever Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. In addition to serving as a bridge between the tea industry and government, VITAS assumes important marketing and exporting activities, making it an indispensable element of the Vietnam tea enterprise.
Than Dy Ngu, managing director of Hiep Thanh Tea Company (HTC), is one of the new generation of tea dealers based in Hanoi. He believes in industry reforms, as well as economic targets. He suggests there is a need to build greater trust between key stake-holders in the supply chain, the planter/farmer, the collector, factory labor and buyer. He sees a need to strengthen contracts, improve product quality and on-time delivery, and promote sustainability in agriculture.
HTC emphasizes organic and fair trade tea. It sources fresh tea from local farmers, processes it in local factories, refines, grades and packages in Hanoi. In 2003, the company set up Ecolink, a marketing channel for small-scale producers of organic and fair trade agricultural products; it received organic (ICEA) and fair trade certification.
Nguyen Thi Anh Hong, Director, Centre for Tea Market Development and Research, the VITAS marketing arm, hopes that large and small scale tea companies working together can foster an economically viable, sustainable national tea industry, achieving the critical balance between price, volume, quality and profitability. The Vietnam tea industry is at a crossroads. It can stress volume to the exclusion of quality and push farming practices toward ecological degradation or put more emphasis on product quality and quality of life, as it heads toward the US$1 billion prize at the bottom of the cup. VITAS is in a unique position to take the initiative.
|Vietnamese tea – an overview |
The Vietnam Tea Industry is already known for the brand Cheviet, which has been registered in 73 countries and entities. It has created close relationships with many countries, especially tea importers. It has held annual programs to introduce Vietnam tea products to foreign friends all over the world. The Vietnam Tea Association is the organization of tea makers that actively brings sufficient and correct information to tea production units. It is the bridge between producers, purchasers and consumers. Vietnam’s tea cultural events are organized regularly in Hanoi and in tea areas to encourage tea makers as well as to honor the noble beauty of the tea industry.
Vietnam tea has found its way to more than 100 nations and entities with about 200 small and large-scale exporters. Its long-term partners are Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan, the UK, India, Sri Lanka, Belgium, Malaysia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, etc.
Vietnam is a member of the World Tea Association and Green Tea Association. Many countries have invested in Vietnam under the form of co-operative plantation, processing or 100% foreign-owned capital such as Taiwan, India, Iraq, etc. A lot of them have established tea trading companies in Vietnam. The target of Vietnam’s tea industry is producing black tea, green tea, scented tea, fruit tea, extracting tea for medicine and food making, and helping people become healthy, intelligent and free of diseases. In short this is encapsulated as: "Tea for human heath".