Jason Fasi is a native of Southern California and has been drinking tea "seriously" since 2003. He founded the Puerh Tea Community blog, and currently serves as its moderator He is currently traveling the world on a one-year sabbatical.
The Central Highlands of Vietnam sees relatively few tourists in spite of its natural and cultural grandeur. Alongside forested mountains, roaring waterfalls and picturesque pastoral scenery, dozens of minority communities still practice their traditional lifestyle. The region grows most of Vietnam's coffee and a fair share of its tea. When I heard about the attractions of the region, I fled the usual coastal route and went inland to tour this lesser-known area of Vietnam, see its culture, and taste its tea.
My journey began in the city of Dalat, the gate of entry to the Central Highlands. The city sees the most visitors of any city in the region because of its temperate climate, French colonial architecture, forests, waterfalls, and gardens. The cooler climate makes exploring hilly Dalat on foot or bicycle pleasant, but renting a motorcycle is the best way to see the sights while saving time and energy. Myself, I chose to pair up with Joseph, one of Dalat's famous "Easy Riders", a band of motorcycle drivers known for their safe driving, hospitality, and intimate knowledge of Vietnamese history and minority culture, but most famous for eye- opening tours into the untouristed highlands. Most Easy Rider Tours, which still bring only a handful of tourists to the highlands every week, take the loop north through the thick of the minority villages, but I opted for the less popular southern route to tour the tea producing areas.
Our first day we spent seeing Dalat's sites of interest. Our first stop was the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, a pagoda with 60 years of history. The 3-towercd pagoda hosts an estimated 200 mosaic dragons built into its ornate decoration, a Buddha with a neon halo, and good views of the hillsides. Its 7-level bell tower next door hosts an 8.5-tonne bell and offers a great view of the Linh Phuoc complex. Here, Joseph and I had a discussion of religion in Vietnam that quickly impressed upon me the importance of the 1992 embargo lift. Religion remains tightly controlled but more relaxed than before. The introduction of private enterprise and tourism has given Vietnamese more opportunity to improve their lives. Re-education camps ceased. While these reforms have benefited the Vietnamese people, they come at the cost of expanded corruption. But.it seems a small price to pay to improve the overall quality of life.
As we moved to our next site, the Thien Vuong Pagoda, it struck me that in a tour bus I could not experience the natural beauty around me; the pine forest canopy looked serene, unobstructed by the roof of a vehicle, uninhibited by the size of any window. The Thien Vuong Pagoda, a Chinese-style Buddhist temple built in 1958, has 3 halls housing many wooden statues, including 3 statues brought from Hong Kong whose carving dates remain unknown. An expert in Chinese religious art recently visited and identified the lines as 16th century style.
Datanla waterfall offered me a break from the pagodas, preventing me from becoming "templed out". A steep hike down the slippery steps rewarded me with a romantic view of the waterfall and its small bridge. I stopped for ice cream at the viewing tables, the thunderous murmur of the falls crowding out my thoughts. I learned that I could have avoided the steep hike down and tough climb up by riding the cheap fun hand-brake coaster cars that run on a track from the entrance of the waterfall to the base. I looked at the families lining up for the cars with envy, but I knew I needed the exercise.
We spent a few minutes at a Zen Buddhist meditation pagoda, Thien Vien True Lam, before checking out Dalat's quirkiest hotel, Hang Nga Guesthouse, whose nickname of "Crazy House" features on the sign outside. A concrete monster of nightmarish and fantastic design, the Crazy House's curvy figure was inspired by nature. This inspiration gelded such oddities as a wire spider web and giant faux spider, a staircase in a giraffe, a tree trunk building, plaster mushrooms, and other various statuary. By a koi pond wire cages hold songbirds who sing the bizarre cantos of this hotel dystopia. The designer, Dang Viet Nga, called the Vietnamese Gaudi, is the daughter of former President Truong Chinh. She began constructing the guesthouse in 1990 after completing an architectural degree in Moscow. The rooms have names and themes, such as "Tiger Room", "Termite Room", and "Bamboo Room", and rent for as little as $15 per night. Articles on display say the guesthouse has "Californian-inspired design," but I never saw anything like this in my home state!
We finished our tour at the Cremaillere Station, Dalat's old cog-rail station. The station used to link Dalat to a town on the beach, but Americans used the railway for supply train during the war, prompting attacks that destroyed the line. Now partially restored, an 8km rail line links the station with the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. As I already visited this pagoda, I simply enjoyed the French-Swiss architecture and the collection of old Russian and Japanese steam trains.
To Lak Lake
The next day, Joseph and I finished the Dalat sites at the Linh Quang Pagoda. Built in the 1920s, the original pagoda was destroyed during the war, then rebuilt in 1975. The pagoda has an interesting story. During the war, a group of North Vietnamese soldiers needed somewhere safe to hide. They kidnapped the monks and wore the robes themselves, shaving their heads and inhabiting the pagoda. The local people, suspicious to see so many new monks, alerted the South Vietnamese forces, who then attacked the pagoda and its dubious clergy.
At Elephant Falls, wild elephants roamed before poaching and domestication eliminated the wild population. In this region, most locals own small plots of tea bushes they harvest for their own consumption, preparing tea from the fresh leaves without any processing. The jungle scenery leading to Lak Lake mixed with minority villages and reminders of war; Co Ho, CM1, Day, and Ma villages contained friendly folk who bared toothy grins and waved at the sight of a motorbiking foreigner. We passed destroyed bridges and defoliated hills. Minority roadside graves displayed their burial rituals, involving glazed jars and buffalo skulls. Many of the tribes still have matriarchal organization; at the grave sites the wife takes the larger tomb.
We visited the homes of one such matriarchal tribe, the Mnong. They live in astoundingly well-built stilt ionghouses. One of the houses we visited has stood over 100 years, built of teak by the matriarch's grandfather. The families keep a 24-hour fire to deter mosquitoes and other undesirable critters; underneath the house the family keeps livestock. A single house can contain several nuclear families, and when a daughter marries, the husband joins his wife's house. The Mnong grow rice, taro, and sweet potato; raise chickens, pigs, and buffalo; and are the only minority to domesticate elephants for work.
The Mnomg and Ede people, once rival tribes, inhabit the villages around Lak Lake. Joseph and I spent the night at a lakeside hotel fighting the hordes of flying termites seeking shelter from the rain in our attractively lit rooms, and I understood instantly the simple practicality of keeping an indoor fire.
To Dray Sap
After the kind of lake sunrise only seen in paintings and movies, Joseph and I set out to Buon Ma Thuot and beyond to the Dray Sap waterfalls. We passed more Ede villages, stopping on the way to watch locals engage in manual labor, splitting granite boulders and baking bricks in earthen kilns. Another scar of the American war, a bomb-hollowed church used as a hideout stood amongst the fields, kept by the local people as a memento of the war. Miles of coffee plantations later, at Buon Ma Thuot, the Victory Memorial stood tall and soviet. It once displayed the first Chinese-made tank used by the North Vietnamese, but the tank's unstable frame Forced the government to display a concrete replica instead.
Not having seen any colossal falls like Niagara or Iguacu falls, the Dray Sap falls are the largest I've seen, the only falls I've seen surrounded by jungle canopy. The slippery trail required crossing two nerve-testing suspension bridges, but the view of the falls from the bridges validated the stress. Trees along the way hosted climbing vines and parasitic plants; some trees grew whole root systems on boulders and outcroppings around the falls. We chose a hotel by a scenic part of the Serepok River north of the falls, and I applied my lesson on Mnong pest control and lit incense to dispel unwanted guests.
Di Linh's Oolong Tea
We took an untrafficked mountain road to Di Link, (passing friendly Ma villages and memorials along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The French began growing tea in Di Linh in the 19th century, presumably the Assamese varietais brought from India. The French determined that the region's light 7-month rainy season, plentiful fog, good soil, and 1000-1500m elevation provided ideal conditions for tea cultivation. After the Vietnam-American War, all tea plantations became property of the government, who privatized the plantations in 1992 but retained processing factories that purchase leaf from local farmers. Shortly after privatization, Taiwanese businessmen bought 58 hectares of land in Di Linh, planted Taiwanese oolong varietals, and opened Vietnam's first high-grade oolong processing facility. The current crop's plants have produced for 12 years. This particular tea, whose name the workers would not reveal, offers high yields that support weekly harvesting in the rainy season and biweekly harvesting in the dry season.
The farmhands pick the tea by hand, one bud and two or three flags. Maintenance of the plants - hoeing, fertilization and pest control-occurs in the afternoon after picking. Because the plantation utilizes these chemicals, workers bathe the picked tea in hot water before processing. After
cleansing, the tea enters electric rotating heaters that bruise and oxidize the tea, 12 kilograms of tea per cycle. The rotation starts the leaf-rolling stage, which continues in cloth bags through a various assortment of rolling machines. After one turn in each machine, the tea returns to the rotating heater, and the cycle of machines repeats for four to five hours until the leaves achieve the ideal pellet shape. The manager oversees a final roast, then taste tests the finished product, a lightly oxidized, rolled oolong without Vietnamese or Taiwanese nomenclature. When they approve its quality, two women sort the tea into two grades; the higher grade contains larger pellets with less leaf damage.
They package the tea in vacuum-sealed packs bearing Traditional Chinese labeling. The majority of the tea sells in Taiwan as "High Mountain Tea", without reference to its Vietnamese origin. While I tasted the first grade tea, enjoying the floral and vegetal flavors that closely resembled Taiwan-grown oolong, it occurred to me that tons of this tea reaches Taiwan to sell as "the real thing". The appearance could fool any Taiwan tea novice, the flavor believable. I began to ask questions that made my hosts uncomfortable: what was the name of the company and its owner? Do they label this tea as Vietnamese-grown tea? How much tea do they produce each year? Does harvesting all year affect quality? They gave me no answers, claiming trade secrets, leaving me to doubt and speculation without information. Many hear rumors of fake Taiwan tea; few have the opportunity to look it in the face!
Assumptions of treachery aside, I enjoyed the inside look at oolong tea production, a chance I missed on my off-season trip to Taiwan. I bought a few bags of tea out of curiosity and intend to taste them side by side with Taiwan-grown oolongs when I return home.
Bao Loc Green Tea
Suffering hunger pangs from drinking too much green oolong, we ventured to the nearby town of Bao Loc to visit a green tea processing plant. A private company, the factory buys tea motorbiked in by farmers. Joseph related that while this plant pays slightly less than the government factories, the private plant issues payment immediately while the government has a 2-week delay. The piles of tea waiting for processing made impatience of the farmers visibly evident! Many of these same farmers grow coffee and tea, sometimes growing the tea bushes underneath the coffee trees on the same land. Coffee provides an annual chunk of their income, but the farmers rely on tea for weekly or monthly income, harvesting the large-leaf tea as often as they can all year round, often biweekly. Tea is hand-picked from bud tip down to the end of a new stalk, often 7 or more leaves per stalk. The factory workers told me the piles of tea on the ground couldn’t compare to what builds during peak harvest season in early to mid-June.
The tea sits withering in those piles for a specified time not specified to me, then undergoes a hot water bath to cleanse the tea of any residual fertilizer or insecticide. Staff remove the larger, older leaves, which taste "too bitter." They then press the leaves, spin and roll the tea in a vertical electric roller, vibrate the tea to separate stuck leaves, and give the result a final wood firing. Workers bag the tea in large sacks to send to another plant where they grade, weigh, and package the product. Bud tips form first grade, whole small and medium-sized leaves form second grade, and stems and large leaves form third grade Bao Loc green tea. I had tasted the second and third grades on my journey already, and drank grade one after the factory tour. The lower grades had mild, pleasant leafy and sweet flavors. The first grade packed a lot of bitter power, but would taste better with lower temperature water.
Bao Loc's green tea is consumed locally; very little of it reaches the international market. The factory informed me that most of their exported tea reaches Southeast Asian countries, with a little reaching England and France and some Vietnamese communities abroad.
Bao Loc Puerh Tea
Bao Loc also produces Vietnam's least expensive tea, Puerh, and I visited a Puerh factory with Joseph on our last day together. Actually, I do not know if I should call this tea "Puerh" in light of its origin, type, and processing, all of which differ from Chinese Puerh.
Because private factories producing Puerh pay the least, farmers sell the factory their least desirable leaves. The factory uses the same raw material used for Bao Loc's green tea. Often, farmers cut back their tea bushes to keep them short and sell the cuttings to the Puerh factory, or take larger cuttings to increase the weight of their sale. Buds, leaves young and old, stems and twigs make their way to the factory, which withers the leaves for hours before rolling and heating the leaves in the same machines used to roll the green tea. The Puerh rolling process lasts longer than the green tea's rolling, and after rolling they let the Puerh leaves ferment and darken. The leaves then dry over a wood fire in a series of machines that also help separate stuck leaves. When fully dried, the tea is packaged and sent to the sorting and packaging factory or sold directly to restaurants, the Puerh factories' biggest customers. The sorters determine the grade by leaf size and stems; smaller leaves sort as first grade and stems and large leaves sort as second grade.
Like Bao Loc's green tea factory and the Taiwan-style oolong plant, the Puerh factory produces tea year-round. The Puerh tea is entirely locally consumed. The factory reports that none of its tea reaches the international market; the tea is only sold directly to restaurants or sold in small packages in local tea stores. With no tasting facilities on site, I asked for a sample of the unsorted tea to try. The flavor is harsh, more like a poor restaurant-grade dark oolong, bitter and only slightly earthy.
Highlands Tea: A Rewarding Journey
I said goodbye to the highlands after the Puerh factory, traveling by road past more villages, to the lowlands' deciduous forests, eventually reaching Mui Ne Beach and its famous sand dunes.
While the teas themselves were ordinary, my experience in the highlands was extraordinary. Mechanization and over-harvesting took a heavy toll on the flavor of the teas, but, with efficiency the name of the game in modern private Vietnamese business, I expected that handcrafted Vietnamese teas would be rare. Getting away to the coffee and tea belt of Vietnam, far from the hordes of tourists and touts, closer to the amiable minorities of the Central Highlands and Vietnam's gorgeous natural scenery, changed my perception of Vietnam and its culture and people. The opportunity to mix this perspective-altering experience with tea made tea a part of the greater whole of Vietnam. For me, tea became a window to understand both the modern Vietnamese economy and the country's history, a small case study that follows Vietnam from its French colonial period to the American war and beyond to the economic reforms of the 1990s.
Travelers to Vietnam should not miss the opportunity to see the Central Highlands. Its people, culture, nature, and tea make for an educational and exceptional experience in a country where most visitors only see the heavily touristed coast. The region impressed me so much that my only regret was not having more time for a lengthier journey, and should I ever return to Vietnam, the Central Highlands will top my list of places to visit.