Vietnamese Culture - A 1970's Perspective
                        Copyright 1996 Vn-families

Issue #25. The refined pleasure of tea-drinking, by Tuong Minh, 
The Saigon Times Weekly, April 27, 1996.

We will run this column weekly until we run out of interesting cultural 
Please direct all questions to [email protected]
Here is the proposed schedule of this column.

Issue #1:  Tet 1971 in Vietnam! by Phu Si, VB710118
Issue #2:  The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, VB710118.
Issue #3:  The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods, by
           George F. Schultz, VB710118.
Issue #4:  1971 - The year of the Pig, by Van Ngan, VB710118.
Issue #5   The Joy of "first writing of the new year", by Thuy Ngoc,
Issue #6:  Traditional Vietnamese male attire, by Van Ngan, VB710208
Issue #7:  The legend of Princess Lieu Hanh, George F. Schultz, VB710215 
Issue #8:  The dialogue on Mount Na-Son, George F. Schultz, VB710222
Issue #9:  The secret housewife, George F. Schultz, VB710301
Issue #10: The golden axe, George F. Schultz, VB710308
Issue #11: Golden age of Viet Nam under the Hung Kings, Pham Tung, 
Issue #12: The legend of Chu Van Dich, George F Schutlz, VB701221
Issue #13: The sandalwood maiden, George F. Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #14: Legend about Emperor Ly Thai-To, George F Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #15. Chu Dong-Tu and Princess Tien Dung, George F. Schultz,
Issue #16. The husband's most difficult task: teaching his wife, 
           Van Ngan, VB 691216
Issue #17: Superstition in Viet Nam, Van Ngan, VB6911??
Issue #18: Hair: VN style, VB7007??
Issue #19: Funeral rites in Viet-Nam, Van Ngan, VB7006??
Issue #20: "Non Bai Tho" or the "Poetical Leaf", ???, VB7011??.
Issue #21: The different systems of writings in Viet-Nam, ???, VB710201.
Issue #22: Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom", ???, VB710201.
Issue #23: The boat of illusion, Nguyet Cam, Heritage Sept/Oct 1995
Issue #24: Tran Hung Dao's proclamation to his officers, 
           George F. Schultz, VB 710201
Issue #25: The refined pleasure of tea-drinking, Tuong Minh, The 
           Saigon Times Weekly, No. 238 - July 10, 1996. 

While not really part of this series of 70's article, I found this recent 
article interesting, thus I am including as a supplement of the series.
                  The Refined Pleasure of Tea-Drinking
                               Tuong Minh

Tu Xuong, one of the best-liked Vietnamese poets of the late XIX century, 
once claimed to have a "Triple Weakness" for tea, for wine and for sex. 
He readily admitted defeat in his vain attempts to resist these three 
worldly pleasures, especially the irresistible charms of tea.

From early times, the Tea plant, a native of Southern China, has been 
known to Botany and Medicine in ancient China. Highly valued for its 
healing properties (such as relieving fatigue, delighting the soul and 
strengthening the will as well as the eye-sight of tea-lovers). Tea can 
also be used as a stimulant to help students or priests fighting 
drowsiness during their long hours of study or meditation. However, its 
high cost at the beginning made it a "regalia for high treatment and 
entertainment; and too choicy, too costly a beverage for the common 

But in a relatively short time, tea drinking has spread with marvelous 
rapidity to make tea not only a popular beverage, a necessity of life, 
but a poetical pastime and one of the most distinguished methods of self-
realization. Tea also represented the true spirit of Asian Democracy by 
making all tea-lovers aristocrats in taste and in the free communion of 
artistic spirits.

Tea has been warmly welcomed in the dwellings of the humblest of peasants 
as well as in the palaces of the haughtiest of princes and mandarins.

Furthermore, it has led people of different countries to gather around 
the tea-set in the highly refined delectation of its flavor.

Heartily accepted by the Western world (which so often has failed to pay 
due respect to Eastern culture) since the early XVI century, that brown 
beverage is still almost the only Asian product commanding universal 

However, tea in itself is a work of art that requires a master�s hand to 
bring out its noblest qualities. There is no single recipe for making the 
perfect brew, but there are many ways to prepare the tea-leaves; each one 
has its own individuality, and its own affinity with water and heat.

Some connoisseurs proclaim that the best formula for tea-preparation can 
be summed up in the 11 Sino-Vietnamese words "Nha^'t thu?y, nhi` tra`, 
tam bo^i, tu+' bi`nh, ngu~ qua^`n anh" (Lit-water first, then the choice 
of tea, of tea-cups, of tea pots and the choice of companions). Nothing 
is possible without the right choice of water according to tea-master�s 
teachings; pure water taken from a mountain spring is always the best; 
next comes river-water, then water taken out of a deep well dug in a 
thinly populated area. Naturally there�s no use for unclean water and 
water polluted with any kind of waste.

After that, the pure water must be boiled in the right way. Tea-lovers 
are particularly choosy in the choice of fuel to be used in boiling the 
water. Charcoal is preferred because it does not give an undesirable 
stink to the boiled water as other fuels might do. Never let the kettle 
boil dry: over boiled water would be lacking in taste and flavor due to 
too great a loss of oxygen.

Water should be brought to the right boiling point,  when the little 
bubbles in the tea-kettle, look like the eyes of crabs. When the water is 
boiled beyond this point these bubbles look like fish�s eyes. When the 
bubbles surge wildly in the kettle the water is already over-boiled and 
has lost too much oxygen to be used for tea-making.

As for the tea itself, there are so many varieties that even the 
cleverest among tea-connoisseurs would have trouble making a 
comprehensive list of them. Aristocrats in ancient China once prided 
themselves upon their specially prepared teas such as "Vu~ Di So+n Tra`" 
(tea plants grown on the famous mountain named Vu Di) or "Tra?m ma~ tra`" 
(tea leaves taken out of beheaded horse�s stomach).

According to Lu Wu, a mid-8th century Chinese poet and the first apostle 
of tea in China, "the top quality tea-leaves must have creases like the 
leather boots of tartar horsemen; must curl like the dewlap of a mighty 
bullock; must be able to unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine; must 
be gleaming like a lake surface under the caresses of a gentle breeze and 
must be wet and soft like a newly rain-swept earth" (Lu Wu - The Holy 
Scripture of tea/tra` Kinh in Vietnamese).

Tea-enthusiasts in Viet Nam as well as in many other countries in South 
East Asia have known themselves to be less exacting in their love of tea. 
Tea seeds were brought back from China (by many member, of the Buddhist 
Church or of the diplomatic services) to be planted in local tea 
plantations, giving great delight not only to the local aristocracy and 
priesthood but to the common people, sometimes later on.

As the caked-tea and powdered-tea (of the T'ang and Sung dynasties in 
China) had sunk into oblivion centuries before, the only method of 
drinking tea which reached the South East Asian region was to steep tea-
leaves (or dried and flower-perfumed tea-leaves) in boiling water.

According to old-time etiquette, drinkers were expected to pay much 
attention to the appreciation of tea-utensils (especially tea-cups, tea-
spots, tea-trays). There were different sets of tea-utensils to serve 
just one drinker (ddo^.c a^?m), two drinkers (song a^?m), four drinkers 
(tu+' a^?m) or several drinkers at the same time (qua^`n a^?m/many people 
taking tea together), As for tea-cups, most popular in ancient China & 
Viet Nam were the tiny ones -about the size of a jack fruit seed (che'n 
mi't) or a buffalo�s eye (che'n ma('t tra^u). Tea connoisseurs make a 
point savoring their tea in tiny cups because their main source of 
pleasure comes mostly from the amount of beverage consumed. Consequently 
the art of tea-drinking exerted a favorable influence on pottery and 
ceramics. The blue glaze was once considered by many tea-lovers as the 
ideal color for tea-cups because it lent additional greenness to the 
beverage years later, black and dark brown were preferred by some while 
many connoisseurs of steeped tea felt the greatest joy over a set of 
white-glaze porcelain.

Until the first half of the 20th century, the possession of a highly-
valued tea-set (made of glazed pottery or porcelain with or without 
drawings of flowers, birds or landscapes) was a must for the average 
Vietnamese household.

Last but not least was the pleasure of keeping good company with close 
friends or other fellows in the appreciation of tea.

More often than not, tea-drinking parties became a kind of improvised 
drama, with the plot woven about tea, flowers, music, paintings, and 
poetry. For members of high society, tea grew to become an excuse for the 
worship purity and refinement.

According to the teachings of Senno Rikyu, the 16th century best-known, 
Japanese tea-master, it�s on the host�s responsibility not only to 
prepare charcoal to heat the water, but to make his guest feel warm in 
winter and cool in summer, to be attentive towards all guests and to 
serve the tea with insight into their souls.

Such are the keys to a successful tea-drinking party, nowadays a rarity 
for many Asian tea-lovers as global industrialization makes true 
refinement more and more difficult. To be merely an idealized form of 
drinking but to some extent a kind of religion, at least for worshippers 
of the art of living.