At the end of the previous tea travelblog we were visiting Bac Ha in Lao Cai province. From here it was a relatively short trip to Lao Cai city to spend a few days with family and friends. Lao Cai has one of the principle land border crossings between Vietnam and China. The crossing is an international one and, during times where there are no trade disputes, a gateway for all sorts of goods passing between the two countries.
The next tea stop is to visit our long time partner in Suoi Giang, Yen Bai province. Here was the very first tea that we selected for the Hatvala range and now a source of both white and green teas. From Lao Cai City to Suoi Giang comprised a bus to Yen Bai city, another to Suoi Giang and finally motorbike taxi (xe om) for the 14 km ride up the moutain.
The first day witnessed the first real tea production of this trip. During the afternoon various bamboo trays full of carefully selected one bud, white tea was coming to the end of its withering phase. Once withering is completed the tea undergoes a 12 hour multi stage drying process; a short drying at relatively high temperature to reduce moisture; spread and rest in bamboo trays; and finally a longer lower temperature drying to prepare the tea ready for sale.
Over the past year we have been working with the family to produce a different style white tea produced from the same material but undergoing a slower, longer sun wither. The result produced a wonderful sweet tasting tea with complex notes of honeysuckle, sugar cane, pine and walnuts. At the moment we only sell this in our shop in Ho Chi Minh City because we had thought it a good idea to make the tea with one bud and one leaf to keep the price competitive. However, the leaf turned out to be very bulky (and delicate) and too difficult to pack effectively for shipping.
During the afternoon various people came by to sell fresh tea leaves that had been harvested from wild trees across the mountainside. In the early evening it was into the small factory for green tea processing. This is an activity we have assisted with (got in the way of) before and we spent the next few hours processing approximately 200 kg of fresh leaves into 40 kg of finished tea.
Processing comprised sorting by hand, firing in ovens heated by longan wood, a single 20 minutes rolling, four drying cycles and grading. Finally it was back to the house for a home cooked meal and an overnight stay.
The following morning we went by motorbike further up into the mountain where a new area of old trees had been discovered. The area was some 3km from the paved road and only reached by narrow dirt path that skirted the contours of the mountain. It is interesting that even now much of the mountain has not been widely explored apart from by those living here, raising animals and growing/ harvesting food for their own needs.
Before leaving Yen Bai we also pay a visit to catch up with our wild black tea producer in nearby Van Chan. We have been trying to co-operate to produce a tippy one bud/ one leaf black tea but so far it has proved difficult to achieved the desired leaf shape. The tea is quite excellent but getting the rolling right without damaging the leaf has so far been problematical. This remains a work in progress that we hope to get right quite soon.