The land of ancient tea trees

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Northern provinces are known as the lands of Vietnamese teas. Hanoi is famous for “the well of summer water and the tea of Canh Lam”, Son La for Ta Sua tea and To Mua tea – “Girls of Muong Te, tea of To Mua”, Thai Nguyen for Tan Cuong tea – “The tea of Thai Nguyen and the girls of Tuyen Quang”. However, the Shan Tuyet tea is the most famous in Suoi Giang, Yen Bai.

The way to the “heaven land” is miraculous in the white clouds, which cover the entire mountain and the path to Chong Pao Mua peak as a small silk band across the mid-air. Suoi Giang commune, Van Chan district at the height of 1400m is the homeland of ancient Shan Tuyet tea in Yen Bai province.

When reaching Suoi Giang commune, I was first impressed by seven ancient Shan Tuyet tea trees in the garden of Mr. Luan and Mrs. Giang Thi Xa. According to Mr. Luan, these tea trees have been grown in his garden for a long time. Some trees are more than 400 years old while some others are nearly 700 years old. In the past, his ancestors passed the tradition of picking up and making tea to his generation. Ancient tea trees are proof of the upheavals of this land. After hundreds of years, they are still luxuriant.

At this height, Suoi Giang village is covered by clouds all year round; therefore, the tee trees can also absorb the quintessence of the nature. H’Mong people believe that the life of these Shan Tuyet tea trees depends on both the land and the sky. The tree trunks receive the air to be stronger while tea leaves take in fog to be more verdant. A cup of tea is like holding the entire universe. Sipping Shan Tuyet tea – Suoi Giang is like drinking all the essence of this landscape.

Each sprout of these tea trees has a white bud and small soft lanugoes. The fog creates a very thin layer on the young sprouts and makes them as white as snow. In addition, these sprouts also retain their white color when being dried. This is the reason why they are called Shan Tuyet (white snow).

After Suoi Giang, I travel to Phinh Ho, a small village of H’Mong people in Tram Tau district, Yen Bai, where local people are living with winds, clouds and many exciting legends. This is known as the stairway to the heaven. However, this time, the ancient tea of Phinh Ho is the one that attracted me.

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The road to Phinh Ho is in its construction, and it is enough to make you tired when passing this path in the rainy season. Steep slopes and dangerous turnings can make you suffocated in the immense, imposing scenery of the northwestern mountain. You can recognize Phim Ho immediately because of specific images of ancient tea trees surrounding houses and hillsides.

Phinh Ho village is hidden in the clouds with narrow pathways running through the village, to the hillside and then disappearing in the clouds. Wooden roofs of the H’Mong people are scattered in the village to bring the feeling of peace in our mind. Unlike that of Suoi Giang, the tea trees in Phinh Ho feature high trunks without many small expanding branches. According to Mr. Dung, general manager of Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, also a researcher of Vietnamese tea culture said that the tea trees in Suoi Giang have many branches because ancient people often cut and trimmed on the tree trunks. Those trees, which were cut less would grow up high. Maybe, for this reason, tea gardens in Phinh Ho are wilder.

Seven months ago, I read many articles written by Mr. Ngoc Duong from VTC News about a forest of ancient tea with innumerable big tea trees tens of meters in height. These articles have been very famous and put me in two minds. Born in the land of B’Lao tea, I have had a passion for this tree since I was young. In addition, I am interested in traveling to new lands with many strange plants. Therefore, I decided to take this trip to satisfy my wish of discovery.

The way to the ancient tea forest is somehow similar to the path to the Fansipan mountain. From Tram Ton, I climb up to the shack at the height of 2,200m, then turn to Sin Chai to the tea forest. The more I travel, the more I can contemplate these tea trees. At this height, the winds make the clouds appear and disappear continuously. Ancient tea trees absorb the air all year round. The humus under the trees is thick,  almost one meter wide. Tea trees have grown to the clouds and the tea leaves are always green.

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I try to find some tealeaves on the ground but I cannot. There are only tea flowers and some tea fruits fallen down on the ground. After some talks with Mr. Huan, then with Ms. Vien Tran – a tea artisan and Mr. Trinh Quang Dung – a tea researcher, some useful information is revealed. All tea trees featuring wooden trunks are called ancient tea trees. Tea trees in Suoi Giang are also included in this family but because for hundreds of years before, H’Mong people cut many branches and sprouts, they were not grown as their natural height. They just remain at the height of several meters. Some 700 year old tea trees in Suoi Giang are 6-8m high while Hoang Lien Son tea trees, which are 20 – 30m in height, are thousands of years old.

Beside this, in the hard weather conditions and at the height of 2000 – 2500m, the cold and fog limited the growth of the trees. It took many years for the trees to grow more 1mm in width. Therefore, some big tea trees of more than 1000 years old are believable. According to Mr. Huan, one of his friends used to go into this tea forest in a week but he could not go through. It may last to Van Ban and to other regions. The place that I visit covers an area of nearly 100m2 with tens of tea trees. Therefore, the whole forest may own millions of tea trees.

According to documents collected by the Tea Association of Vietnam, wooden tea trees include the Shan tea and Assamica tea (mostly found in India). Only this tea species can obtain the height of more than 15m, but it can grow neither in the drought and cold weather nor in the lowland. Meanwhile, Hoang Lien Son tea has grown at the height of 2,000 – 2,500m in the cold weather conditions. So is this a new type of tea that has not been discovered? The tea trees have white, mouldy trunks, which are different from azalea trees, chestnuts and ironwoods. The best temperature for the tea is 18 – 30 degree Celsius. If the temperature is low, the tree may be frozen to death or grown slowly.

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After some challenges, it’s time to enjoy. It is a wonderful experience to sip a cup of tea in the immense Hoang Lien tea forest with the wind, cloud and mountain. According to our ancient people, to have good tea, it must be “water first, tea second, the way of making third and teapot fourth”. The water must be taken from the mountain. Mr. Huan undertakes the assignment of taking water from the stream in the village. Each tealeaf, which is also attached with fog, is the epitome of this landscape.

According to H’Mong people, the way of making tea is crushing up tealeaves, then boil with the boiled water in about 10 – 15 minutes. When boiling, use a tealeaf to cover the spout in order the steam is not released out. It is the best to use a H’Mong’s pot for making this tea.

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In the coldness of the forest, the floating clouds and the wild scenery, the crackling sound of dry woods and the sound of boiled water make me feel excited and emotional. Now, when sipping a cup of Oolong tea and remember Hoang Lien Son ancient tea, I feel dazed with longing.

Further information:

+ Route: From Hanoi to Nghia Lo, Suoi Giang and Phinh Ho. Stay at Nghia Lo overnight.

+ The way to the Hoang Lien Son tea forest is also the path to Fansipan, towards Tram Ton.

+ Transportation: Take a passenger car from Hanoi to Nghia Lo. Then hire a motorbike to discover Suoi Giang and Phinh Ho. Take a passenger car from Nghia Lo to Nui Xe forest management point; ask for the permit to the ancient tea forest.

From Internet