At the heart of Vietnam

On 10 March 2016
Departure for Vietnam

After spending several days meeting with Vietnamese tea gardens, the Impertinent Parisian is coming back to us and is sharing its travel journal with us, through pictures which allow us to travel to the core of plantations, those where he selects a part of its high quality teas offering floral perfumes, more unrecognized than Chinese or Japanese plantations.

A journey with the Mekong streams that have walked him until the city of Sa Đéc, further South, where he discovered the Lakes of Lotus, which help perfuming the green tea from there among the various flowers which are used…

A getaway in the heart of Asia, from where he will bring back in his luggage future inspirations for his next creations, maybe flavored with ‘artichoke flower’, whose infusion is very popular there and a national beverage.

A stroll to select, to understand, to meet, to summarize the profession of tea taster in this country where tea plantations are alongside coffee plantations, in this country with a thousand of contrasts, cradled by waters from everywhere.

A travel journal that only Guillaume LELEU knows how to share…

DAY 1 : TASTING

Small moment, a magical instant, tasting of a wonderful handcrafted tea from Dā Lat Mountains in the heart of Vietnam…

A true delicacy in mouth, a note close to honey, light wood, a beautiful lightness and length while asserting a nice presence, both olfactory and gustatory. Just a pleasure, a smile, that after a real journey to get there comforts both my heart and my soul.

If I could bring some back, I would not hesitate…

Tea tasting in Dā Lat

DAY 2 : AT THE HEART OF TEA PLANTATIONS

(Almost) in the wild state… Here, tea gardens run alongside coffee plantations in the mountain.

The fragrance of their white flowers in the air perfumes the places, a fragrance close to the one of Jasmine… about 25km from Dā Lat on the heights of the city, we still pick by hand, it is one of the last places in the world where we still pick that way… Some parcels are reserved for wild tea trees, which will be let to rise, to age, in order to harvest the leaves reserved for Pu Erh tea. The others are those which will result in Oolong tea, green tea, black tea…

A part of the harvest will be used for ‘flavored’ teas which have found all of their nobility in Asia at the same level as plain teas, just like in Taïwan, China.

The leaves will then be soaked with lotus, jasmine, rose flowers and others which will be mixed with ginger roots… but the local specialty in Dā Lat is tea flavored with artichoke flower, and following the surprise of the first savors, one will happily let oneself be coaxed by the suave sweetness of the infusion.

And now remains what I could not share with you using words, the pickers’ smile, the hospitality of farmers, the long explanations on techniques, the confident and adventurous pleasure to discover those new lands of Camellia… 

The tea pickers' smile

DAY 4 : AT THE HEART OF TEA PLANTATIONS

To select a leaf means to understand its soil, as well as the philosophy of its men and to lift your head to the sky to feel its caprices.

There is no luck in the search, the pursuit of a quest and I always have had the need for this contact to hear the leaf throughout the years. More than just touching it, biting it and then brewing it, the place where it will be alive takes on its full meaning in the fact of listening. 

I particularly like those lines shaping tea gardens, which just like furrows are pushing you to look further than the horizon, those same horizons that some have sometimes tried to darken, by smallness or jealousy, those same horizons which will enlighten your profession, who you are, in its reason and original meaning.

I like to lose myself in it, and then to find myself again.

I like those curves, those mountains, those trees that punctuate them to better stop. I like to touch their green color, which constantly catches light, and I like the idea that all that will be left of it is an infusion, smiling at the corner of my lips thinking of the smiles it will make on people’s faces, so far from it, from them, from those horizons…

The plantations

DAY 7: DISCOVERY OF TEA FLAVORED WITH ARTICHOKE FLOWER

{Artichoke heart} I knew them when they are cooked in water, until their flesh is crispy, their hearts deliver their tenderness, prepared by my grandmother… I still had this memory of the leaf everyone tried to suck at best to remove its extract… I still kept a few happy images of plates even more overflowing after than before we started to eat…

And then, I still remembered this friendly nickname, from the time I was younger and was affected by some heartache…

But until then I did not know that their delicate flowers had a healing power, soothing virtues, a refined taste, a beautiful infusion when they are combined with a few green tea leaves… and that they could be a bouquet of flavors in mouth, an exotic pleasure…

And that is tea as well, this combination of plants, of fruit pieces, of flowers with a few raw leaves, a cookery of infusions to feed the soul and the spirit, a natural medicine as a preventive prescription, a creative alchemy that is too often discredited by being summarized as an illegitimate aspect of occidental tea, as common ‘under beverages’ under the ‘flavored’ denomination, whereas ‘cooked’ tea, flavored tea, this tea has always been part of the tea culture from its great origins.

With all due respect to some ayatollahs seeking some public recognition.

Tea flavored with artichoke flower, a specialty from Vietnam.

Infusion of the tea flavored with artichoke flower

DAY 8: ON THE SHORES OF LOTUS LAKES

A flowery journey.

When I imported my first lotus tea from Vietnam, the method of tea embalming that was described to me almost seemed unreal, like a legend that is passed on, a myth…

In Vietnam there would be great lakes of lotus, which open on the morning dew, in which we delicately drop the tea leaves inside the heart of the flower so that they can soak up the perfume of pistils during the night, while the flowers are closed.

I did not have any reason to doubt, but curiosity and my professional conscience have naturally pushed me to realize this wonder by myself…

So let’s go more to the South then, taking the same road as tea does, to Sa Đéc, for a journey that was far from unpleasant because it led me to a nice stroll on the Mekong waters, which I hope I can tell you about later…

Once on the spot I can only ascertain the beauty that is surrounding me, the fields of lotus as far as our eyes can see, this pretty flower whose delicate perfumes I like to borrow and in which tea borrows its savors… like it is to discover in the ‘Blue Oolong Lotus’ tea no matter that it is Theodor Paris, but as well this same flower by which I allowed myself to be seduced in my latest creation ‘J.C Absolu Oolong’, which will already celebrate its first anniversary soon…

The beauty of these flowers, which with time have become the symbol of Vietnam, allows me to say definitely regarding this journey that love has many faces and that I have found mine through tea.

Lotus flowers

DAY 10: ON THE MEKONG WATERS

I am waking up on the Mekong waters, everything is still calm around me, silence is sometimes broken by the motor of a sampan (sānbān), by the first fishermen… The river seems to be peaceful, the waters are soothed by the night that is ending, the light of dawn unveiling the mirror of its extent which we can only admire.

My head remains on alert to take forever pictures of these wonderful landscapes surrounding me, to try to keep its softness, its sounds, its perfumes, its beauties which here and there are more stimulations for tomorrow.

I am already tasting my first cup of tea for today, quickly prepared with the utensils I had handy, but in spite of that the leaves are delicious, I have taken some of them that I wish to bring back.

While raising them to my lips, I am telling myself that the presence or absence of bitterness, the perfumes, the pleasure or displeasure that can bring a cup of tea, that before any perfect preparation, it is the quality of the leaves that reveals what the cup will be and no matter the rules which are sometimes enforced, they are only there to eventually sublime an infusion but not to make it.

The Mekong brings me back to reality, the activity seems to be coming to life, after a few seconds an emulsion in the air can be felt, more boats, some even bigger, mine is still berthed.

So before this feeling of tranquility disappears and before I come back to my Parisian thoughts, I go back straightaway to look at this huge river while it comes to life and I am taking you with me.

A stroll on the Mekong

DAY 14: LAST DAY

With melancholy.

I am leaving the ‘eyes’ of the Mekong, its waters, its shores, to sail towards other destinations. And even if I have known many streams, by any weather and on any sea, I remain a land sailor, who needs to come back to his harbor, but I will keep those ones, their calm, their lives, their beauties.

I am leaving those lands, rich in unsuspected fruits, rich in humility, which I have loved to explore, to discover, to drink their tea.

I don’t know if it is time to go home, but the time to ‘switch on the stars again’, as Apollinaire said, has come and this I can only do from my little piece of land, with my family and those who are part of my daily life.

Goodbye Vietnam, thank you for your hospitality, thank you for so much kindness, we will see each other again for sure, holding a cup of tea in the hand like all those we have already shared together.

‘Cam on!’ (Thank you!)

Fruits and landscapes in Vietnam