After a tiring day of walking for more than six hours to reach the old tea plants and then returning to the village, I needed to recover. The food in this region of northern Vietnam is delicious. With the Dao people who were hosting me, I followed tradition: throughout the meal, I toasted many times with the people who raised their glass to me. Each time I had to down my drink in one, and shake hands with them. Between slugs of the local rice alcohol, I took time to appreciate every tasty dish. The meals were prepared in the room where we sat to eat, on the ground. As soon as the meal was over we lay down on mats, in the same room, with nothing to separate us apart from a mosquito net between each person, not even from the jungle outside, with all its noises that interrupted my sleep. I could hear noises from the other mats: a mother breastfeeding her baby, someone else snoring loudly, another person coughing, and other various sighs and mutterings. By the time the cock crowed I’d been awake for some time, and I went outside to walk, to watch the day break from the edge of a rice field above the village. When I returned for breakfast and sat down, I was surprised to see the master of the house offer me more rice alcohol, and enthusiastically raise his glass in my direction. I declined. I couldn’t believe it, I was dreaming of tea, but in vain; my host was serious. He grew gloomy at my protestations, and would have been offended if I’d continued. Travelling is all about adopting the traditions of the people who are kind enough to welcome us, so I swallowed my drink. Later, he offered me a well-deserved tea, a tea I’d rarely longed for so much.
It’s not easy to reach the wild tea plants growing on the border between China and Vietnam, especially in the hot season. The stifling, muggy air slows you down, and the leeches that infest the region take advantage and cling on. You walk beneath a high sun. The humidity in the air is palpable. But once you’re out of the jungle, after a good three hours of walking, you find yourself high up, among the famous tea plants that have been left to grow like trees. You can enjoy this beautiful sight, especially if you’re lucky enough to arrive as the leaves are being picked. (To be continued.)
In regions where tea is picked from plants growing in the wild, whether that’s in southern Yunnan (China), northern Laos or here, in Vietnam, the villages are mainly populated by ethnic minorities. There is a great diversity of these minorities. Each one has its own customs, and sometimes its own language. When you walk through the mountains in these regions, you get to experience this mosaic of cultures. This woman, who is busy picking tea leaves from the top of a tree, belongs to the Dao community. (To be continued.)
Here’s what a tea plant looks like when it has been left to grow, rather than being kept low so that its buds and shoots can be picked easily. From what I’ve been told in this far-flung corner of Vietnam, this camellia could be about 300 years old. I’m no expert in dating trees, but what I do know is that some very good teas are made using leaves harvested from these tea plants… (to be continued).
Tea and rice have a lot in common. Firstly their shades of green, with the occasional touch of yellow, so delicate and varied, so intense. A feast for the eyes. I could spend my life photographing paddy fields. I often walk around them, carefully, placing one foot in front of the other along the low wall that surrounds them, in order to reach tea plantations that are even higher up the mountain, like here, in northern Vietnam. Some tea gardens have no road leading to them, so you set out on the sinuous path of the paddy fields. At least here it’s not steep, because rice grows on flat ground, either in fields or on terraces. Rice, unlike tea, needs stagnant water. Tea needs plenty of water too, but the water must be free-flowing, not sitting around its roots. That’s why tea likes slopes, while rice likes flat land. Flat versus slope, valley versus mountain, stagnant water versus flowing water; tea and rice are like two brothers who are completely opposite yet inseparable. They’re always together. They have another important human characteristic: of all agricultural products, these two crops employ the greatest number of people in the world. (To be continued.)
I’m back from Vietnam, and would like to share some photos of my trip with you. I set out from Hanoi to the region bordering China, where there are old tea plants growing wild; the leaves will be picked to make dark tea (what’s known as Pu Erh in China). After a six-hour drive to Hà Giang, followed by an overnight stay, I laced up my walking shoes for a three-hour trek in the mountains, through paddy fields at first, until I reached the famous tea plants, in the middle of the clouds… (to be continued).
Many types of tea are produced using a specific method or cultivar, or on a defined terroir. While most of these teas are made on modestly sized smallholdings, they are sometimes processed on larger premises with bigger facilities, and even in factories that make tea on an industrial scale. The key difference with teas processed traditionally as opposed to industrially manufactured teas is the artisanal quality of the former; this involves skilled work done by hand, and the process is judged through the feel, appearance and smell of the leaves at every stage.