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Ngõ Nooks: What a Tea Ceremony Taught Me About Our Lotus Tea Traditions

“The lotus is our national flower, and lotus tea is regarded as the national tea.”

Nguyễn Việt Hùng emphasized the role of lotus tea in Vietnam's national identity during our chat. Hùng and his wife, Vũ Thị Hải Yến, started their own tea shop in hopes of bringing Vietnam’s tea culture to international drinkers. One sunny day amidst summer, I decided to pay them a visit at Hiền Minh Tea House to experience a tea ceremony hosted by Hùng himself.

The tranquil interior of Hiền Minh.

Before brewing the tea, Hùng invited me to spend a few minutes in meditation to “mellow out,” then he would detail the intricate steps of the tea scenting process. “Making a good lotus tea is an elaborate, meticulous and complex craft,” Hùng explained. “Each phase, each rhythm could directly impact the flavor.” First, the type of tea leaves. Often, tea makers use trà mạn (unscented dried leaves) to infuse with lotus, but we chose ancient Snow Shan tea.

Each tea session begins with a few minutes of meditation.

“I picked Snow Shan because the lotus is the essence of heaven and earth, so to accompany it, we need a type of delicate green tea,” he shared. Hiền Minh Tea House obtains their leaves from old tea trees in Hà Giang. Every spring, the husband and wife pair relocated there to live for three months to harvest Snow Shan tea buds from trees as old as 100–300 years old.

Heritage Snow Shan trees with thick trunks.

Hùng showed me a photo he kept of a 700-year-old Snow Shan tree, and I couldn’t help but gawk at its giant trunk that’s almost too big for the hug of two people. While in Hoàng Su Phì, Hà Giang, the couple would work alongside H’Mông and Dao locals in the collection and processing of tea leaves. They often remain there until the end of spring and return to Hanoi in the summer, when the lotus flowers in their pond start to bloom.

The family's lotus pond and the many steps in the harvest.

Hiền Minh Tea owns a lotus pond spanning 2 hectares just 45 kilometers from downtown Hanoi. “We have to wake up really early at around 4–7 in the morning, when the lotus flowers are just barely open. If the sun rises too high, they will fully bloom and the scent floats away,” he recalled. “The elders call it sen hàm tiếu, meaning smiling lotus. We have to collect the flowers when they’re hàm tiếu, like a lady gently smiling, not grinning.”

How to collect “lotus rice.”

From May to August, the pair will focus on harvesting lotus blossoms; last year, they collected 50,000 flowers. “After that, we separated the flower parts: the petals on one side and the pistils on one side. Then, we pluck out the lotus ‘rice,’” Hùng detailed. “Rice” is how tea makers refer to flower anthers, the pouches containing pollen. Once both the tea leaves and lotus rice are ready, the scenting begins: one layer of tea followed by one layer of lotus rice until the jar is full. The container is left alone for 2–3 days for the lotus aroma to seep in the tea. Then, the resulting leaves are dehydrated at 60–70°C to remove the moisture, but the essential oil will stay with the leaves.

“That’s just the first scent. Once done, we do that again. Sieve out the old lotus rice and replenish with a new batch. Rinse and repeat around seven times, spanning about 21 days, before the final product is done,” Hùng said. Still, the tea doesn’t immediately get brewed, it will be kept for six months before consumption — exactly during Tết.

Only when we reached the end of the process did I realize how sophisticated the art of tea-making can be. “Now, it’s time we enjoy this tea,” Hùng announces. He scooped out a bit of dry tea leaves and let me have a whiff. A soothing fragrance filled my nostril. Hùng said the leaves were still “sleeping,” and we would “awaken” them using heat. He started using only the steam of hot water to “wake” the tea without water, because “even the first brew already takes away much of the lotus, one shouldn’t discard it. And if the tea is valuable, the first brew will already taste divine.”

Ceremonial tea is not as simple as pouring hot water into dry tea.

Hùng slowly poured the tea into tiny glasses and demonstrated to me how to lift my glass correctly. The liquid tea is translucent with a light amber tint. “We’ll heave in a deep breath, take a small sip, and hold it in our mouth for 2–3 seconds.” I followed the instructions, delighted to feel a refreshing taste instead of the expected bitterness. Hùng chuckled: “When drinking tea, people often picture trà mạn, with its tannic and bitter taste. In reality, ceremonial tea is not bitter at all. The more refined the palate, the more people prefer a lighter tea. Many Vietnamese love a lingering aftertaste. This is the key: the aftertaste must be sweet.”

The tea house's tree-filled garden.

Only until he mentioned it did it dawned on me how the taste of my tea still wasn’t gone. I had another sip, excited to get another hit of that light taste. The more I drank, the more I felt appreciative of human labor and nature’s gifts, artfully distilled into this golden liquid. Hùng started with the second brew, which resulted in a lighter-colored tea, even though the taste remained unchanged. This is also another skill to hone for tea makers: how to adjust the components so that even the tenth brew is just as good as the first.

It was exactly these morsels of aromatic tea leaves that helped Hùng and Yến win the top prize at the Tea Masters Cup competition in 2016. The top honor also gave Hùng the opportunity to go to China to learn more about tea, and participated in a bigger competition. When in China, Hùng discovered that even in the birthplace of tea, there were no tea trees as old and rare as those in Vietnam. This knowledge compelled him to pursue this path to help elevate Vietnam’s tea scene.

Even though I don’t usually drink much tea, the experience at Hiền Minh truly opened my eyes. As it turns out, Vietnam has many rare tea trees that are hundreds of years old and the level of artistry that goes into the making of a seemingly simple glass of tea is astounding. To take a sip is not just to drink tea, but, as Hùng aptly put, to “drink in heaven and earth.”

Hiền Minh Tea House is open from 8am to 11pm. To attend a guided tea ceremony, guests are required to book in advance via this link.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5

Hiền Minh Tea House

13 Ngô Tất Tố, Văn Miếu Ward, Đống Đa District, Hanoi


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