“In tea terms, Vietnam is a sleeping giant.” This is a judgement for us to take seriously. The French claim credit for planting the country’s first tea in 1825, but in typical French colonial fashion, these European invaders were deeply self-deluded. From of old, tea plants have grown wild in Laos and Vietnam and tea was already part of Indochinese culture in the Tang era a millennium ago. To suggest that excellent opportunities for local production have only recently been noticed strains credulity. Gabriela Karsch, America’s pioneer importer of tea from Vietnam who heads the Indochina Tea Company in Los Angeles, reports that Vietnam’s best tea grows north of Hanoi along the border with China. I can attest the power and beauty of a lotus oolong from those parts. As capitalist enterprise gradually supersedes Communism, more and more machinery and personnel from India arrive to transform this local agribusiness. (Following considerable investment in the 1980s, Japanese firms largely abandoned their ventures in Vietnam.) So far, the first fruits of foreign interventions are imitations of China greens or Taiwan oolongs or CTC black teas intended as counterfeits to be sold in home and foreign markets. (A similar progress is underway in neighboring Thailand.) Though trained palates can detect these intended deceptions today, the quality of all such teas is improving. Some day, as the song in Finnegan’s Rainbow asks: “When the idle poor are like the idle rich – who will know who is who or which is which!?!” Vietnam’s annual tea production is barely fifty thousand tons as of 1999; just wait.
Cambodia tea is one of the three recognized species of Camellia sinensis, and it typifies the state of Indochina tea today that the world’s tea lovers are still denied all opportunity to sample same. Thailand is producing creditable copies of mediocre or better Taiwan oolongs. Malaysia’s tea comes mostly from Boh, a plantation named after Bohea laid out by a British official’s son in 1929 just north of Kuala Lumpur. Its Orthodox black teas are similar to medium-quality Ceylon and the result of near-perfect climatic conditions. All these regions show promise.