Our final full day in Hoang Su Phi sees us on the road early again heading towards Fin Ho. We had visited Fin Ho the previous year and have been using some of the teas from this area as the base for our flower blends. We source the tea from Fin Ho and transport it to Hanoi West Lake to blend with lotus and jasmine flowers among others.
The first part of the journey retraces the route that the local bus took from Ha Giang and is full of twists and turns but well enough maintained. After 20 km we turn on to a narrower concrete road towards the commune of Thong Nguyen where we had stayed on the previous visit. It is a very pleasant ride on this quiet byway with some beautiful views over the river valley and rice paddies. Soon we reach the Fin Ho tea factory and although we do not plan to visit the factory on this occasion we stop nearby for refreshment before taking the even smaller track up the mountain to where the wild tea trees grow.
When we had visited the mountain the previous spring the track had turned into a muddy and rutted path after the first two kilometres. Luckily this was no longer the case and there was now a reasonable track right to the top even if the hairpin bends and the spectacular drops still remained.
It took about 30 minutes to reach the village so we parked up the bike and continued on foot to look at the trees and signs of life. We quickly get talking to a family who harvest and make tea from the wild trees growing around their property. There is an unusual arrangement in Fin Ho in that families will produce tea and either sell directly themselves or sell to the factory that we passed earlier. Other families harvest only and sell fresh green leaf direct to the factory who then produce green and black teas on a larger scale. Tea from the factory may, therefore, be from different sources and may be of different quality.
It had been a cold winter in Ha Giang and there had not been sufficient new growth yet (this being the end of March) to undertake a full harvest. However, we agree with our host family that we will see if we can find some young leaves and have a go at making some tea by pan frying (rather than their traditional drum baking). After 30 or 40 minutes we have a tray full which we set aside to wither for a few hours.
While we waiting we are invited to stay and have something to eat. In addition to making tea the family grow their own rice, corn, fruit, vegetables as well as keeping chickens, ducks and pigs. The plan is to cook a chicken but it seems that the flock had got wind of this as none came running when they were called for with a promise of food. An alternative chicken was quickly sourced from a neighbour.
Our meal was a delightful mix of fresh home produced food cooked over an open fire together with the customary wine which was made from corn this time. During the course of the meal several people passed by and joined for a while before going on their way. To finish the meal we tried several pots of very excellent green tea left over from the winter harvest. The way of life is very different.
After the meal it was time to see what we could do with the tea leaves. Pan Frying is a definitely skill and none of us had tried it before. We were using a open wood fire with a cast iron pan. The trick is to get the fire and the pan to just to right temperature and to heat the leaves long enough to complete the 'firing' but without burning the leaves (or the hands). Judgement is used to decide when the leaves are ready to move to the next stage which is hand rolling. This helps to shape the leaves but also squeezes remaining juices onto the surface for enhanced flavour in the tea.
Once rolling is completed the leaves went through four gentle drying phases over the open fire until the required moisture content was reached – again determined by judgement and experience. Some 4 to 5 hours after picking the leaves we were able to sample the fruits of our labour – and very acceptable it was too!
By now, night had fallen and it was time to make our way back to the hotel. If anything riding back down the winding track was more hazardous than riding up – especially in the dark. However, it was achieved without mishap and it had been a successful day. We came away with green teas from a number of individual families in the village and we plan to source teas direct from them in future for use in our flower teas.