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I remembered my visit some years ago with Mr.Xuan Hien at his tea room where he received guests to come to taste or buy tea, to me, it was a completely new personal experience. Everyone was easily attracted by this place which was full of oriental tea spirit, and then gradually falled in love with Vietnamese tea.  

More than one decade working on tea, including establishment of the Bavantea brand, Mr.Xuan Hien’s tea story did not start with a business, but it is simply a result of his long time studying on tea, as well as his attentively working with farmers, so as to make tea “from root to tip”. His journey seemed to be so quiet, but infact, Hien has held many tea classes, where many aroma & taste layers of tea are gradually discovered by the sensitive “tea learners” on each time of tasting, with the aim to spread Vietnamese specialty tea.

 This time LeLa Journal made a long conversation with Hien to know his fate with tea, to learn about the features of each tea category, the Vietnamese tea market, and the Zen spirit on tea which he practises and spreads daily.

I knew that you had quitted the job as an engineer to switch to tea. It may be a special fate, because you did not perform it as a profitable business right away, but started by studying tea, like a farmer to grow & take care of tea trees, you also produced tea with them. Up to now I see that your products include a variety of tea categories, from White tea to Pu-erh tea. Do you find tea resources and the production way in the tea area that you co-operate is really professional? What are the opportunities and challenges that Vietnamese tea farmers and tea makers like you have to face up with?

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Bavantea’s products

I started drinking tea and learning about tea since 2010 as a hobby, in 2013 I started selling tea online and in June 2015, I decided to quit the job as a mechanical equipment sale executive after 6 years of staying with it – the job that I had dreamed of since I was a student of Hanoi university of science and technology, so as to start a tea business.

Since then, I started to study tea more deeply, wandering on many tea areas from Tan Cuong – Thai Nguyen, to Ta Xua, Moc Chau – Son La, Suoi Giang – Yen Bai, Tua Chua – Dien Bien,. .. and especially the largest ancient Shan Tuyet tea area in Vietnam: Tay Con Linh – Ha Giang.Vietnam is endowed by nature, has great advantages to develop agriculture and tourism, including tea trees. Vietnam is one of only 6 countries in the world where you can find wild tea trees (these 6 countries are China, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). The hundred- year- old wild tea trees, even thousand – year – old wild tea trees grow in the deep jungles of two high mountain ranges, Hoang Lien Son and Tay Con Linh. Therefore, our tea material is very rich and strong, suitable for making high-class tea products such as white tea, Puer tea, …is able to meet the requirements of the world.

Besides wild Shan Tuyet tea tree, since the 90s, Taiwanese enterprises have researched and found that the soil and climate of the two plateaus Lam Dong and Moc Chau, are very suitable for growing and developing oolong tea. Currently, the quality of oolong tea grown and produced in Vietnam is highly appreciated by the world market. For some oolong products, it is even difficult to distinguish which one is Taiwanese oolong tea, which one is Vietnamese oolong tea.

In addition, the small leaf tea areas around Tam Dao moutain range, including Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho, Tuyen Quang, … also provide a huge amount of green and black tea for domestic and export demand, which contributes to bringing Vietnam to the 5th position of the world’s leading tea exporting countries.

For example, in 2019:
“According to export data in 2019 of Vietnam, there were 370 organizations and individuals exporting tea to 74 countries and territories with the volume of nearly 140,000 tons, the turnover was 245 million USD, the average price was 1,756 USD/ton, which was nearly 10% increase in volume and 12% increase in value, compared to those of 2018. Export structure: Black tea accounted for 47%, Green tea (including scented tea, Oolong tea) accounted for 52%, and the rest was the other types of tea. The average price of black tea was : USD 1,430/ton, green tea was USD 2,013/ton.  Pakistan, Afghanistan, Taiwan, Russia, Indonesia and China were still the 5 largest markets of Vietnamese tea, accounting for nearly 75% of the total exporting volume and almost 80% of the value.” – Data source is from the Vietnam Tea Association (1).

Under such favorable natural conditions, a few enterprises do very good businesses, they produce high – class tea products, sell at high prices, however, a part from these very few successful enterprises, Vietnam is still a country with a “brand” of providing cheap tea for the world market, who mainly produces raw materials, depends a lot on foreign partners.

Basing on feelings and evaluations of a person who has been selling tea packed in “100 gram – box” for nearly 10 years, I see that in the recent 5 years, high-class Vietnamese tea products began to attract the attention of international market, many of foreign tea lovers came to Vietnam to learn and buy tea. And for the domestic tea market, there are some good signs too, many people, especially young people, drink tea and give priority to Vietnamese tea.

Therefore, in my opinion, our challenge  is how to produce high-class, unique and distinctive tea products, the first goal is to supply to a very potential market, with over 90 million people, that is Vietnam, then is to export and earn foreign currency.

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Xuan Hien visited tea area on the moutain, havested and produced tea with farmers.

As you shared before, Vietnam holds all the aces (favorable timing, geographic, human resources) in developing high-end tea products, does this mean we are also able to “compete” with tea from other countries like China?

It is obvious that, in the tea world, China is still the leading raw material area, the leading factory and also the biggest market. They have thousand years of history in growing, producing and drinking tea. The tea cradle of the world is Yunnan, China. In some aspect, it is true to say that tea cultures of the world, including Japanese Tea Ceremony and the British Afternoon Tea, all originate from China.

However, in my point of view, there are no competitors in business, everybody is friend. My philosophy in tea is: “Tea is between Heaven and Earth, helps different languages and skin color to sit down side by side in… peace”. Each country has its own advantages, and the market is very large, so, if we understand our local tea material, understand production techniques, understand consumer psychology, follow the principles of nature, balance exploitation and conservation, then the development will be sustainable, and we will achieve a winning market for our tea products.

Through the photos you update regularly, I can see that you from time to time will go to the mountain to visit tea area, to harvest and make tea together with the local farmers. But I am still quite curious about the tea crop and how to deliver the tea to your warehouse in Hanoi! Are there any tea crops which you are unable to choose good tea, and how do you know whether the tea is qualified or not?

Tea will be harvested at different times depending on the tea area. For example, tea area in the midland like Thai Nguyen, and oolong tea area in Moc Chau, which are a type of farm-grown tea, will be harvested once every 40 days. Shan Tuyet tea (Shan Snow tea) in mountainous areas like Ha Giang, which is wild tea, will be harvested seasonally, 2-3 times a year. The main crop is spring crop, takes place in the March of lunar calendar, its harvesting time lasts about 20-30 days. Then after approximate 30 days, you can pick the tea leaves for the second time, and around August – September of the lunar calendar, you can pick the tea leaves for the third time. Tea material is mostly produced in spring crops, and less in the next two crops.

Green tea and green oolong tea require cool storage, we will send it back to Hanoi and store it in the refrigerator after we make it, if the quatity is large, we will keep it in a cold storage warehouse in Thai Nguyen. White tea, red tea, pu-erh tea… do not require cool storage, therefore, some of them is kept at Ha Giang facility so as to handle the last processing steps such as drying, cake pressing, etc; the rest will be delivered to Hanoi for storage and packing.

Most of our tea products are produced in a traditional way, so it depends a lot on the weather, the locality and the makers… It does not happen often, but sometimes we are also unable to produce some kinds of tea, because the raw materials are not qualified enough, for example Oriental Beauty tea, its raw material is Qing Xin oolong tea buds which are bitten by a kind of insect called the tea green leafhopper. After being infested, the tea will offer an unique flavor. If it is too hot or rainy too much, you won’t be able to make this kind of tea. Another example is white tea, if you can’t predict whether the next day is sunny or not, the tea batch will be at risk of being thrown away if there is not enough sun to dry it… If you still keep it with hope of drying it on the second sunny day, then the tea shall release a bad taste…

How to choose qualified tea requires many factors. Although there are “recipes” to evaluate tea, it’s more simple for a tea drinker to evaluate, just try it, then buy it if it suits you, or don’t buy if you don’t feel it good. However, as a businessman, you have to pay a lot of “tuition”, tuition here does not only mean money, but also your effort, time, sweat and …blood. According to my personal experience, you need to understand  the raw material area, the features of the soil, the altitude, the tea area direction (in the east or the west…), the tea variety… , also need to understand the production process, the mentality of the tea makers. And in the end it’s all manifested in the finished products, but how do you know it ?

There are some evaluation criteria, it basically is: shape – color – aroma – taste – “qi”. Shape means the shape of dried tea and the shape of tea dregs…is it unbroken or crumbs? Color is the color of tea and its brewing water, is it clear or opaque? Aroma is the aroma of dry tea, and the aroma of tea when you wake it up with hot water, the aroma of tea when you drink it… Taste is the tea taste when you drink it, tea has different taste: bitter, acrid, salty, sweet… depending on the type of tea. “Qi” or “Ki” is the energy you get after you drink tea, “Qi” provides tea drinkers with a feeling of refreshment, comfort, coolness or warmth…

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Tea room of Bavantea

Reading the book “The Story of Tea – History of a Traditional Drink of Vietnamese People” by Tran Quang Duc, we learnt that drinking tea is inherently a typical tradition of Vietnamese people in the past, but somehow, now only ice tea is popular in the city and fresh tea water is popular in the countryside. Coffee or milk tea are prevailing, but why is truly way of enjoying tea like Zen tea or tea ceremony, not easy to spread and run businesses like coffee and milk tea?

In my point of view, tea is both a drink and a medicine – a medicine for both body and mind. Drinking tea is a way of meditation, a way of self-cultivation, hence there is a saying “the oneness of Tea and Zen”.

I attribute everything to energy, people need energy to survive, food is a source of energy. If we consider tea a drink, then tea is a kind of food, like iced tea, coffee, milk tea… Most of living things need this kind of energy for their survival.

Some people are predestined, have spiritual awareness, usually practice self-cultivation, hence they are able to receive other sources of energy from nature, which allow them to eat less but still can maintain their lives. Moreover, they also achieve inner happiness and peace, like true spiritual practitioners. This kind of people is not much. When drinking tea, they do not consider tea as food anymore, but consider tea as a source of pure energy, helping to clear their mind and spirit. That’s the reason why coffee and milk tea are popular, but tea ceremony is not.

Visiting your tea room, I always feel that the customers who come to enjoy and buy tea, all cherish your products very much. So, what kind of people usually come to Bavantea? Do they share any opinions about Vietnamese tea made by Vietnamese people like Bavantea brand?

During nearly 10 years of tea business, there are also many customers who have not returned, but luckily, thanks to the love and supports of some customers, our business still maintains and is growing up. Many old customers who had came here since we started the business, still come to enjoy Bavantea now.

Currently, we have various types of customers who come to enjoy and buy our tea, from pupils, students to employees and retired people, all kinds of professions.

Our slogan is “Vietnamese specialty tea”, hence most of people who come to Bavantea, have a love for Vietnamese tea, they would like to experience the growth and maturity of Vietnamese tea business. Many people also have concerns about how to produce more and more good products, how to help people in the tea area to have better lives, and how to take care and preserve tea trees better.

Hien holds many tea courses and classes. Can you tell a little bit about the way you organize it, and the messages you want to convey through these classes? It seems that when people learn to taste tea, through different time of brews, they can feel the different layers of aroma and taste of each kind of tea, which also can help them return to reality, help them become more profound and subtle, instead of just unconsciously rushing out to busy daily life!

Although I have run the tea business for nearly 10 years, I always keep my mindset as a start-up. 10 years for studying and sharing things about tea. From 2018 to present, we have held 30 basic tea classes with 150 learners and 03 professional tea classes with 15 learners.

I often ask tea learners: “What do we learn when we learn about tea?” Gradually, each person will find his own answer. But after all, it’s about finding a way so that after a period of tea practice, each person can find his life easier, healthier, happier and is always ready to share what he learns with others. Tea practice is meditation practice. I always believe that tea helps us gradually realize what is…ego and return to …true self.

Bavantea in Tokyo, Mr.Xuan Hien introduced Bavantea to Japanese friends

It is obvious that drinking tea brings a lot of health benefits. Each kind of tea brings different benefits in terms of physical and mental, and spirit health.

As I have already mentioned before, tea is medicine. Shen Nong is considered the Divine Father of tea, who is also a “miracle-working doctor”, an expert in herbs and its medicinal properties. He is said to be the writer of “The Divine Farmer’s classic of Materia Medica – ShenNong Bencao Jing”, the first human book on medicinal plants.

There are several kind of tea: white, green, yellow, black, Puer tea. According to traditional Chinese medical science, tea also can be classified in terms of Yin and Yang’s principle and the Five Elements’ principle. The five elements correspond to the five internal organs. For example, white tea belongs to Metal element, corresponding to the lung, so white tea, especially the aged white tea, is suitable for drinking in the cold season to prevent respiratory diseases. Green tea belongs to Wood element, corresponding to the liver, so drinking green tea in the hot season helps to clear toxins and heat… Red tea (Black tea) belongs to Fire element, corresponding to the heart, so red tea, especially the charcoal-roasted red tea helps boost digestion, replenish blood, support the spleen and stomach …

According to modern science, there are thousands of chemical compounds in a tea leaf, divided into groups: polyphenols include astringent, acrid, antioxidant properties…; amino acids brings deliciousness, sweetness when drinking tea; carbohydrates provide sugar and energy; caffeine creates a bitter taste and  minerals…

As you mentioned before, most Vietnamese people have not yet experienced the excellent quality of Shan Tuyet tea (Snow Shan tea), a kind of rare tea that is highly appreciated in the international tea market. Because most of Shan Tuyet tea in Vietnam is exported to China. Can you talk more about this?

In the past, the traffic in Vietnam was not convenient, Shan Tuyet tea leaves were only plucked, then processed in a simple way, and consumed by the highland local people, hardly delivered to the lowlands. Now thanks to the media and convenience in transportation, more and more people know Shan Tuyet tea.

However, people in the lowlands have an old habit of drinking Thai Nguyen green tea which offers green water and aroma of young nugget. They are not used to drinking Shan Tuyet tea (Shan Snow tea), which offers honey-yellow water. But Chinese people know the value of Shan Tuyet tea so well, they also have many experiences in processing and trading Shan Tuyet tea, therefore they come to Vietnam and instruct local people the way to havest and make tea for them. The result is, Shan Tuyet tea is Vietnamese tea but  mainly exported to China.

Now, after several decades of carrying out production by ourselves, we gradually understand more about the value of Shan Tuyet tea, so there are some signs of growth up in the domestic market recent years , although it is still in the early stages.

Vietnamese Shan Tuyet tea (Shan Snow tea) products also began to attract the attention and love of European customers.

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In your opinion, for a tea learning beginner, what kind of tea and teaware should he prepare, and how to brew tea, so that he daily can enjoy and discover tea in a more and more interesting way?

In fact, as I see, each person should simply start with “drink tea”, drink the teas that suit your taste, but let yourself in the “reception” attitude, meaning that you are always ready and happy to try other types of tea which are different from your normal taste. Doing like this, we will have more tea experiences and be able to enrich our “tea treasure”.

Regarding teaware and brewing way, in order to       reduce “tuition”, beginners should use ceramic gaiwans, ceramic tea pots, which is easy to use and clean. It is not necessary to use a lot of tea pots. After a time of practising and learning, he can further use pottery pots, clay pots…

Still in a curious and welcoming attitude, we should experience different ways of brewing and different types of tea. You should pay attention to 3 factors when brewing tea: volume of tea – water temperature – steeping time, it is good to adjust these 3 factors harmoniously, so as to have a cup of tea that suits your taste. But it is even better to open your mind, drinking a cup of tea and feel it whole and complete, without judgment, without discrimination, then every cup of tea will become delicious.

At the present and in the future, do you have any new projects to promote tea in general and Bavantea in particular?

I am opening the second facility of Bavantea in Ha Giang, which is operated as an office, as well as a warehouse. This is also the first place where I set up the foundation of Bavantea brand, with desires to connect international tea lovers with Vietnamese specialty teas.

I also desire to build a workshop in Ha Giang and Ta Xua, so as to process some tea products following my personal requirements, this is also a place for learners to experience Shan Tuyet tea area and experience actual production works, as well as to warmly receive international tea friends to come to share and learn Vietnamese tea.