Day 5: Hoàng Su Phi

September 18, 2019

by Cynthia Fazekas

Today we leave our jungle accommodations, traverse back across the wooden bridge, and head yet higher into the mountains of Hoàng Su Phi. We will visit the area of the Dao Ethnic People and the ancient tea trees they live among.

It's a precarious climb by car, motorbike, and then eventually by foot in the hot sun.

Finally, we arrive. A beautiful grove of ancient tea tree sprawls down the mountainside. We gather around what the Dao call the Mother Tree, which is over 600 years old. The Mother Tree is about twenty feet tall, with twisting branches covered in moss and lichens. On either side of the tree are a bamboo stands that serve as ladders from which leaves can be safely accessed. A Dao holy man performs a ceremony at the base of the tree to bless our visit there. His incantations are repeated for an hour with a small makeshift altar of burning incense, a cooked chicken, and some other offerings. He periodically claps two dark slender stones together, and continues to recite for an entire hour. All of us visitors have been gifted a scarf hand embroidered by the local people to worn at the ceremony. The holy man casts our scarves into the tree to adorn it as the closing part of the ritual. We are allowed to climb the bamboo stands to be 'in' the tree and are given a leaf and a bud by the Dao (but not permitted to pick leaves ourselves from this precious tree.)

From there we visit a local tea factory for lunch and some tea tasting. Our group of tea professionals discusses the various characteristics of the teas of Hoàng Su Phi. The leaf color is a pewter type of silvery gray in the white teas. This color is quite unusual and we believe it to be distinctive to these ancient trees. Some of what we try has a delicate, super light lotus-floral note, a hint of vanilla, and what strikes me as soft sandalwood spice. Some of our tea delegates take part in a tea processing competition, which is judged by the heads of the tea factory. Tea processing is hard work in the heat with hand wok firing but it is too fun for anyone to mind!

The green teas we taste here take on a fruity, almost passion fruit note, and tend to be a bit astringent. But this is how the locals are accustomed to brewing them. Heavy on the leaf is the norm, as it suggests generosity. When brewed more conservatively we sensed floral notes initially, and the occasional lotus seed or sesame seed in the finish. The range is quite broad, and intriguing.

Thirteen differnt ethnic minorities live in Hoàng Su Phi and have done so for at least two thousand years. Tonight we travel to a Dao community house to spend the night, dine with, and enjoy the cultural ceremonies of the friendly Dao.

Our accommodations are rustic but the people so very kind. We witness their Fire Dance performed by a spiritual leader and some young men. The importance of this tradition is to honor and control the spirit of fire. Their lore is recited in English for us, and we learn that fire is beneficial as it brings warmth, keeps animals away, and cooks food, but that it can also destroy man. Three young Dao men take the places of their ancestors by take turns running to and through a large bonfire. They grab and toss the hot embers, thus spreading the fire out, making it bigger and perhaps demonstrating their control over it. What an amazing sight to see.

A mountain style feast is served and we are treated to more Dao traditions, such as songs about the natural wonders of their land, a men's game of strength, and then karaoke!

The Dao are so very welcoming and as honored by our visit. We are honored by their kindness, the beautiful landscape, and the opportunity to see the Dao and their ancient tea trees. All are truly Vietnam's national treasures.
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