Vietnam's Ancient Tea Forest

SUOI GIANG, Vietnam Staring at a map showing the habitat of tea it is easy to see that the birthplace is a “golden triangle” within the borders of three modern countries. The triangle is bounded by mountains south-west of Yunnan, China, the Taybac region in the northwest of Vietnam and Phongsaly province in northeastern Laos. Records exist from the 10th century B.C. in Yunnan Province, the northern most boundary of ancient wild tree forests that have been plucked for centuries. Ethnic inhabitants of these tall mountains include the Yi, the Thais and in Vietnam, the Hmongs. ImageThe ancient wild tea tree forest near Suoi Giang, located in the northern mountains of Vietnam’s Yen Bai province, is the ancestral domain of the Hmongs. Russian scientists visiting in the 1980s believe the tea trees here to be the oldest in the world. Their findings remain unpublished but across the border in Yunnan, Lincang province, carbon 14 tests show producing trees that sprouted more than 3,000 years ago. In China these venerable trees stand isolated, in remnants of gardens. Vietnam’s Suoi Giant forest contains more than 85,000 ancient trees. Lai The Hung is the official in charge of “quality and safety of agricultural products” within the provincial government’s agricultural department. He also supervises a tea forest rehabilitation project that has identified thousands of trees whose gnarled trunks and tortuous branches indicate they are between 400 and 800 years old. The forest elevation varies from 800 to 1000 meters (3,200 feet) above sea level. The forest is a four-hour drive from Yen Bai City. There are no other cars when we arrived, a few motor bikes but most people travel by foot in this remote rural place. A European style villa dominates the village and is home to the municipality and the elementary school. Colorful little red flags flap on doors and the balcony of the building where one must first pay civilities to the local head official and inform him of the purpose of the visit. Formalities concluded we are permitted to walk into the protected area, where 190 hectares of the 290 hectare (715 acre) forest is wild tea. imageThere are still plenty of new buds in the warm mid November sun. They remain unpicked however, due to labour shortage we learn. There is little grooming, the trees have been left to themselves for ages; water buffalo and chicken graze underneath. The scene is peaceful and very wild. A small pilot plot with cuttings and waist high, seed-grown bushes prosper without shade and no irrigation. Neither is necessary in this clean, cool and humid environment, we learn. Meeting up with the Suoi Giang Tea Cooperative Boss, Mrs. Lam Thi Kim Thoa, we learn that a shortage of tea pickers from the Hmong village is a serious problem. She explains that 10 years ago, following a severe drop in prices, growers here turned to other crops. Annual tea output has fallen to 1000 kilograms of made tea, an amount easily doubled with additional hands. European and North American interest in organic tea and their fascination with ancient forest teas has boosted sales of Suoi Giang teas. The downy spring buds are prized locally. She says the additional funds will hopefully attract renewed interest from the village workers. The air here is so clean and cool Mrs. Lam says the trees do not require any treatment. They are fed local manure, because nobody is prepared to pay the cost of fertilizers. Grades of tea range from fine spring picking to three-year-old matured leaf teas. The teas show a nice light green in the cup and can be infused several times; the taste is very close to a cup of fine raw Pu’er tea, not a surprise at all, as the Yunnan border is not far away. Fresh leaf currently brings VNDong 25,000 ($1.20) per kg. This is up from 80-cents last year. Handmade village teas brought in by the farmers sell for $8 to $12 per kg, which sounds like a good price to us. Production is picking up and Mr. Hung and Mrs. Lam share an optimistic outlook. imageMr. Hung’s biggest concern is the lack of maintenance for these old wild trees. They are in need of pruning and reshaping and overall rejuvenating. Mr. Hung is organizing the cleaning away of brush and has established several nurseries for seedlings and cuttings. Preserving the plant’s genetic material is paramount for replanting as needed. He wonders where to look for assistance and advice. Should he appeal to China? to India? or to the West? He asks. Telling others about the treasures of Suoi Giang is an important first step. Mr. Hung believes that attracting the interest of the tea world could help to generate support in safeguarding these unique and exceptional heritage tea trees and their precious crop. To contact Lai The Hung, email him at [email protected]