20th
Mar
2014

Posted in Reference

While coffee cultivation was introduced to Vietnam during its period under French colonial rule, tea has been grown there since time immemorial. Not altogether surprising when one remembers that the north of Vietnam borders onto China, the birthplace of tea.

In the northern mountain provinces stands evidence of the nation's long and devoted relationship with tea in the form of ancient indigenous tea trees. In Yen Bai province is a tree at least three centuries old. Reporters from Vietnamese newspaper, Saigon Thiep Thi, travelled to a region of the northern mountains in 2011 to look for some of these trees with a local guide. It took them three hours to trek up Fansipan Mountain, a popular tourist destination, to reach forests sheltering the antique trees. The group picked tea leaves and took them back to base to make a pot of green tea which they found pleasantly sweet and certainly more palatable than what they were used to.

Shan Tuyet tea trees grow without human intervention at altitudes of more than a thousand metres above sea level. Tea cultivation is a way of life for those living in the highland area and worship rituals are also held to venerate the most ancient trees.  Local people harvest leaves minimally, regarding them as a divine gift and the unpruned trees live on in their natural state. Nevertheless, there are some communities which have capitalised on the pure, delicious leaves, trading them further afield, especially to the Chinese market.

Although both tea drinking and tea cultivation were very much a part of the traditional way of life when the French arrived in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was the colonial quest for economic gain that lead to the formalisation of the tea industry. The French grew the very first cultivated tea gardens in Phú Thọ province. In addition they built three tea research stations in the north in order to study and gain the most from the types of tea in the area. By the outbreak of World War 2 they were cultivating some 33,000 acres of tea and were exporting black tea to Europe in significant proportions.

With the war came the unravelling of the tea industry, as first the Vichy French government took control when France was defeated by the Nazis in 1940, followed by Japanese control until their defeat in August 1945. At this point the French stepped back in, but met resistance in the form of a guerilla campaign from the Viet Minh, a communist and nationalist liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh. With the defeat of the French in 1954, Vietnam was split in two and the northern half, where tea has always been grown, became a communist state. Russia helped restart the abandoned tea industry by providing tea processing technology and became the recipient of tea exports.

After the Vietnam War and the reunification of the country the tea industry received Japanese support to establish the production of green tea and help from Taiwan as they ventured into oolong tea production. Then, following economic reform in 1986, tea farmers, like coffee farmers, were given individual ownership of land and commercial success ensued. There are now well over 100,000 acres of land used for tea cultivation and some 2½ million people are part of the industry as a whole.

And so tea has become big business in Vietnam, while the ancient tea trees grow quietly on...

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