A Hue Cup of Tea

Tea drinking is an age-old habit in many parts of the world. Different people at different times have their own ways of drinking tea. But consuming tea is not only a way to quench one's thirst: for some, it is an art form and a religious practice. In Viet Nam, as well as in certain other countries, tea has long been a part of traditional medicine and philosophy; and today remains a noble pastime, requiring much time and patience to perfect.

Japanese Tea

For the Japanese, tea drinking does not merely satisfy a material need; it has developed into a belief system called Chado, with its own concept and rituals. Chado, like Judo, Kyodo or Kendo, is considered as a means for personal development; a way to cultivate patience and calmness. The disciples of Zen use tea as a kind of medicine that enables them to keep their minds clear during their long periods of meditation. Through performing tea rituals, one enters a quiet place. Lost in the fragrance of tea, one strives to silence one's soul and forget the hustle-bustle of the outside world.
Chinese Tea

To the Chinese, tea not only improves one's health, but also one's manners. Through drinking tea, a person refines their appreciation of the fragrance of tea, their ability to recite poetry, even to perceive harmony in the arrangement of a tea set. It teaches one to enjoy flowers and the sight of the moon, clearing one's mind to contemplate worldly affairs or plunge into meditation.

Tea in Hue

Tea is no less important in Hue. For the Vietnamese in Hue, drinking  tea is an art form; an intellectual, aesthetic and sentimental activity. In ancient times, a man was judged by three things: his view of life, his capacity to appreciate beauty - and the way he drank his tea.

No one in Viet Nam is unfamiliar with tea, but only in Hue did tea-drinking become elevated to a level that matches that of China and Japan. For in the 19"' century. Hue became the new capital of a new line of kings, and the home of a nobility whose forms of entertainment and pursuits of pleasure were different from those of the noble classes of the previous dynasty in Bac Ha (Northern Viet Nam). During the Nguyen Dynasty, the noble class sought to create a cultural, political and social style different from that of their dynastic predecessors, especially the Le and the Trinh. The new nobility modeled itself on the Chinese court, though the customs and beliefs were altered somewhat to suit the geography and the character of the people of Hue. Thus, there are many similarities as well as significant differences between Hue's tea culture and that of China.

The Japanese attach great importance to the setting in which tea is consumed, while   the   Chinese place more emphasis on the flavor of the tea itself. For Hue locals, however, these considerations are only secondary. For them, it is the occasion and the guests who determine how, where and when the tea is served. Sometimes one drinks tea before a party; sometimes it brings up the rear of the party by revitalizing tired or intoxicated guests. Tea quenches the thirst, helps to get rid of the smell of alcohol on one's breath; it calms and relaxes one's mind.

In the old days, the nobility in Hue devoted a great deal of time to drinking tea, engaging in all sorts of solemn and complex rituals. There were just a few factors which determined the success of a tea party: where the party was held, the quality and arrangement of the tea set, and the type of tea and water used.

Tea parties are often held in beautiful and elegant tea rooms. The most solemn room or space in a house is generally chosen to be the tea room, its walls hung with ink paintings, poems written in Chinese characters, scrolls, ancient statuettes and so on. Flower pots are hung by the window to give the room a more idyllic atmosphere.

Sometimes tea parties are held in gardens in the shade of large trees, the revelers seated on porcelain stools around large stone tables. The latter setting is considered to be especially conducive for poetic inspiration, and at garden tea parties one often finds the guests strolling together among the trees and flowers, reciting verses from famous poems or creating their own. A harmonious setting is crucial to the creation of a harmonious overall atmosphere for a tea party.

A complete tea set consists of four saucers, one large long (or tuong, meaning general) cup, four tot (or quân meaning soldier) cups, an earthen pot, and a tea box for storing tea. There are many kinds of tea sets, and finding the right one takes a good deal of time and luck. The designs and pictures on tea sets are often taken from famous stories and legends such as To Vu muc dong and Nhat cham tung phong. In Hue, there is a famous tea set called Mai Hac (The Apricot Tree and Crane). The set is made of glazed porcelain. On it is an image of a crane standing at the foot of an old apricot tree, and two lines of poetry by Nguyen Du:

Great is the pleasure of roaming the hills and dates,
The apricot tree is an old friend, the crane an acquaintance.

It is believed that Nguyen Du brought the tea set back with him from China when he was sent there on a diplomatic mission in 1813. On his return, Nguyen Du stopped at a porcelain shop in Canh Duc District (jiangxi Province, China). Knowing Nguyen Du was a famous Vietnamese poet, the shop owner asked him to write a few characters on one of the porcelain tea pots he was making. Nguyen Du wrote the two lines above in Norn (the Vietnamese demotic script).

The tea set became so popular that many Hue craftsmen borrowed its design for their own tea sets. This tea set and similar ones were so often used by mandarins and nobles under the Nguyen Dynasty that they have become a symbol for the dynasty itself.

For the ancient Chinese, selecting the right kind of tea among the numerous varieties available was crucial. The best teas were reserved for emperors and high mandarins. These teas included Hau Tra (monkey tea), Tram Ma Tra (slaughtered horse tea) and Trinh Nu Tra (virgin tea). Tram Ma Tra was made by first feeding tea buds of excellent quality to a white horse which had been starved for a week. After waiting 1 0 minutes for the gastric juices to permeate the tea, the horse's head was cut off, and the tea buds removed from its stomach, then dried. To make Trinh Nu Tra, a beautiful virgin usually aged between 14-18, was bathed in perfumed water, and then dressed in a loose-fitting garment stuffed with tea leaves. The virgin then slept in the garment overnight, after which the tea was removed and roasted.

In Hue, the processing of tea never reached such extremes, but there were many excellent varieties of teas such as Tuoc Thiet, Cap Quan and Tinh Tarn. Tinh Tarn tea, named after the man-made lake in Hue built by the Nguyen Kings, was especially famous. At sunset, royal servants would row out to the middle of the lake and place tea inside the lotus buds in order to perfume it. Procuring the water for the king's tea was an even more time-consuming task. Servants were sent out each morning to collect the drops of dew hovering on the lotus blossoms, or to search for water in underground streams in mountains. Rain water was used when none could be procured from these other sources.

For Hue people in the past, tea was both an art form, full of rituals and rules, and a humble pleasure. Its tradition stretches beyond recorded memory, and throughout the ages it has been praised and celebrated by famous men and poets, as well as common people. There is a folk saying:

As a man you must know how to play To tom cards.
How to drink tea in Hue fashion and how to recite fine lines from the poem of Kieu.

For Hueans, drinking tea has involved more than just the tea itself. One must not only learn to appreciate the flavor of tea, but also the conversations which are inspired by it, the decor of the tea house, and the beauty of a properly arranged tea set.