Brew up

Vietnam and the UK share a tradition of sipping tea, though the tea and the tea culture differ greatly.

By Karim Jacobs on April 11,2018 10:27 AM

Brew up

Photos: Robin & ASEAM image

WHILE WE MAY OCCASIONALLY OPT FOR AN EARL GREY RATHER THAN A BREAKFAST TEA, YOU’D BE HARD PRESSED TO SEE MANY PEOPLE SEARCHING FOR HERBAL, FLORAL, OR OTHERWISE UNCOMMON TEAS IN BRITAIN, THOUGH THEY ARE ON THE RISE. 

As an expat in Vietnam, it’s always easy to focus on the things that are different between my home country (the UK) and my new adopted country. Quite often, I’m tempted to write about the traffic, the cultural differences, or the time I saw someone carrying a porcupine on the back of a motorbike. But the longer I live here, the more I’m drawn to the things that make Vietnam similar to my home country, rather than different. One of the major similarities that makes me feel a little more at home is the humble cốc trà (glass of tea).

If you didn’t already know, Britain has something of a tea obsession. Some estimates suggest that people in the UK consume 165,000 cups of the stuff a day. Wait ... no. That should be 165 million. 165 million cups a day, in a country with a population of 65 million. We drink tea when we’re happy. We drink tea when we’re sad. We drink tea when we have nothing else to do, or when we’re putting off something important we have to do. When in doubt - brew up, or so the saying goes.

And it’s a similar situation in Vietnam - tea is ubiquitous. It’s the go-to beverage. And so more and more frequently I find myself taking a break from the office and hanging out at the stall by the end of the street. In fact, I recently spent Tet at my in-law’s house, and I spent many happy hours pouring, brewing, and drinking the strong, bitter, lime-green beverage with guests. It was, to use a dreadful pun, exactly my cup of tea. The experience got me thinking about the history, the meaning, and the cultural similarities (and differences) between the two countries and their shared love and consumption of the simple brew.

Distinct tea cultures

Let’s begin with a quick jaunt through time. In Vietnam, tea has been a part of the country’s history and society for thousands of years, a point evidenced by the existence of some tea plants that are said to be older than this up in the Ha Giang region to the north. By contrast, the culture in the UK is merely a baby, its first mention being between 1615 and 1660, as an import from the East India company. It was originally, at that time, drunk by the elite and seen as more of a luxury than a staple, though this gradually changed.

Brew up

Despite this historical difference though, it seems that the British quickly discovered the value of tea as a social occasion. While in Vietnam tea had long since fulfilled an important community function, this didn’t happen so quickly in Britain. Originally starting in high-end coffee houses on the streets of London, it took time for tea to become an economically-viable drink for a lot of the population, considering the difficulties in growing the plant in the British climate. As time passed, Brits also recognised using tea as an occasion, and a ritual, which offered the chance to bond, talk, and build relationships - a custom that we both share today, along with many other cultures around the world. By the end of the 17th century it had become a staple in the UK. The local tastes had adapted and changed it with the addition of milk and sugar. Fundamentally, while tastes may have changed, the sharing of a hot drink remained a social behaviour - one where the actual refreshment was secondary to the time shared together. And perhaps this is why I find it strangely comforting to be offered a cup of tea in the middle of Hanoi; it feels just like going to a friend’s house back home.

Same Drink, Different Taste

When I first arrived in Vietnam and was offered a cup, I was half-expecting a traditional tea bag, milk and two sugars affair, served in a large mug (what we call ‘builders tea’). What I got in reality was a shot-glass sized cup of extremely bitter, green liquid. The flavours were far removed from what I’d expected, but I powered through. It took me almost a year of tentatively sipping these intense, small servings before I started to acclimatise to the taste. And eventually I started to recognise it as feeling healthier, more refreshing, and definitely more of a palate cleanser. This ‘freshness’ was brought home to me by the fact that green tea flavours so many products here: chewing gum, biscuits, ice cream, and even toothpaste. It also made me realise, however, that we quite possibly have things backwards in the UK. The addition of milk, sugar, and biscuits turns our social ritual of tea-drinking into something more akin to a meal than to a healthy refresher and thirst-quencher.

But the UK’s tea tradition is also changing, and seems to be edging closer to Vietnam’s. While we may occasionally opt for an Earl Grey rather than a breakfast tea, you’d be hard pressed to see many people searching for herbal, floral, or otherwise uncommon teas in Britain, though they are on the rise.

So what I’m saying the biggest difference is, I suppose, is that Vietnam’s tea culture is more diverse, artisanal, and focused on local and exotic flavours. This is echoed in the cuisine, which focuses very much on regional specialities and flavours (while it’s common in Hanoi to go to a ‘Danang restaurant’, you’d be hard pressed finding anyone in London going to a ‘Newcastle restaurant’). Every house I visit seems to blend a slightly different flavour or variety into their teapot, and this adds something unique to the experience. In contrast to a standard branded tea bag, I’ve been privy to lotus, jasmine, kuding, chrysanthemum, and various others I don’t even know the name of. And with some of these varieties comes stories and great attention to detail in the process of development. For instance, with lotus tea, the leaves are traditionally placed in an almost-blooming flower overnight and then harvested at dawn. It adds a sense of romance to the occasion. I’ve noticed over the years, and figures back it up, that more of these artisanal, flavoursome, and unique herbal and fruit teas have begun to gain traction in my home country too.

So perhaps the UK could be on course for a tea culture that is even more similar to Vietnam’s in the future. Regardless of taste, I suppose the main obstacle to street-side tea stalls is the weather. But I like to imagine that if it weren’t for that, Londoners might quite enjoy sitting down outside at a little independent stall and drinking a unique, cheap, and refreshing cup of green tea. Perhaps it’d give us more reason to relax and let us spend a few more minutes away from the office and put down that five-dollar double-shot-soy-vanilla-latte. But if that never happens, I’m content with the curious shared history and culture behind the drink that holds such an important social role in my two home countries.

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