TEA - AN INDISPENSABLE DRINK FOR VIETNAMESE

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Walking along streets you can see somewhere near a lamp port, or under the shade of a tree, or next to a door there is a low table on which are placed several glass pots containing different kinds of candies, roasted ground nuts and sugar coated cakes. Next to them is a humble tea cosy and a tray of cups. Around the table are several small wooden stools. This is the complete set of a make-shift tea shop and is very popular part of Vietnamese street life.

The first sentence a customer will utter to the shop owner will invariably be: "One cup a tea, please". The owner skillfully lifts the cap of the tea cosy, takes out the tea in to a small cup. The owner then hands the cup of steaming tea to the customer. This kind of drink is indispensable to every inhabitant of the capital city. Tea is drunk every day from the early morning until late at night. People drink tea at their homes, at their work places and in tea shops on their way to and on their return from work.

Whenever they feel thirsty they are likely to look for the drink. It is drunk in both the summer and the winter months. In the summer and winter a sip of hot tea makes you feel warm inside and better able to cope with the cold temperatures outside.

Unlike northerners whose preference is for a cup of hot steamy tea, people in the south like to drink their tea cold and tend to have it with ice cubes.

If you pay a litter more attention to the surroundings of the tea table in northern Vietnam you can notice a very old-looking bamboo pipe leaning against the edge of the table or kept inside a nearby wooden box. The pipe is called dieu cay (tobacco water pipe) and it is said to be one of several typical traits of lifestyle in northern Vietnam. To make a dieu cay a piece of bamboo pipe up to 0.5 metres in length and with an opening at one end is required. A smaller pipe wooden pipe is fixed at the other end and it is here that the tobacco is placed. A smoker begins by rolling a small amount of tobacco into his hand before placing it into the small wooden pipe. Then he lifts the open end of the bamboo pipe to the mouth and lights the tobacco with a burning bamboo stick while smoking. During smoking you can hear a merry noise inside the bamboo pipe. This is caused by the water contained inside the pipe which is used to filter the smoke. When the tobacco is completely burnt out the smoker begins to raise up his head backwards and slowly exhales the smoke from his mouth to appreciate in full the complete satisfaction and enjoyment the smoke has to offer.

The smoke is so "delicious" and "tasty" that farmers in Hanoi's outskirts commonly call the process of smoking thuoc lao (eating the tobacco). They invite their friends to smoke by every simply declaring: " eat the tobacco, please".

How strong and delicious the stuff can be, but it is best appreciated together with a few sips of the steaming hot tea which provides the perfect supplementary to the smoking ritual.

What is about tea that offers so magic a power, one could wander?

Tea has been planted in Vietnam from time immemorial. It is grown widely in the provinces of Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Yen Bai, Lao Cai and Bao Loc in Lam Dong of the Central Highlands. These place are well known nation-wide for their tea growing. In some cases, tea plants can service as long as 300 years. To make the best tea, tea growers have to pick the leaves at the right time of day. If tea leaves are picked just a few days later then permitted they will become tough and the drink made from such leaves will have a very poor taste The leaves are then subject to a five-phase drying process when they are first partially dried, then crushed, fermented and heated before being finally sorted.. Vietnam's tea commonly comes in two varieties: green tea and black tea. Black tea is used for export and green tea is always used for domestic consumption.
There are also several kinds of fragrant tea flavoured with the scent of flowers such as chrysanthemum,lotus and jasmine.

King Tu Duc who reigned during the Nguyen dynasty in the ancient capital of Hue on the central coast (1848-1883) was renowned for drinking lotus-flayvoured tea in a very special way. In the afternoon of the day prior to his morning tea, he had his servants row to a lotus growing lake in the royal garden and put a small handful of tea into each lotus flower in the blossom before binding the petals up. In so doing the tea would dry over night and at the same time absorb the scent of the petals. Next morning the tea would be picked from the lotus lake and offered to the king for his morning refreshment. But for those who are serious about their tea drinking, unflavoured tea grown in the hilly province of Thai Nguyen, 50km north of Hanoi, is their best choice. It is said that particular region has a very special taste and fragrance.

Tea drinking is a customary practice at wedding ceremonies. During the hoi vo (engagement) ceremony, tea is among several items of food offered to the bride's family. Several kilograms of the best Thai Nguyen tea wrapped in beautiful bags and placed inside a qua son (a cicular lacquered wooden container) would be an ideal gift.

Tea also finds it way into funeral ceremonies where tea drinking is believed to be a medium for uniting friends and relatives and in offering condolences to family members of the deceased.

In the old days when friends met each other after along period of absence, they could offer each other betel and areca nuts plus a tobacco pellet to chew before beginning to chat. Now people in both urban and rural areas rarely invite their friends to take betel or areca , but prefer instead to offer a cup of tea as a precursor for conversation.

Recently another kind of tea shop has begun to appear in major urban centres. The shops are called quan hong tra (red tea shop) and they offer a kind of tea cocktail. The ingredients of this tea include flower petals, sugar, honey or milk and grated ice. Tea is then mixed into the blend until a froth appears. The mixture is then ready to pour in to a cup. For a unique flavour, a particular shop may well add its own blend of ingredient, including fragrance from peppermint, lemon, lotus, honey or milk.