The women behind Vietnamese tea

Image courtesy of Vanessa L. Facenda

Earlier this week I returned from Vietnam where I had been visiting green, black and shan tea gardens and factories in the Son La and Phu Tho provinces. Tea is big business in Vietnam — production is increasing (it is the fifth largest tea producer in the world), exports are growing, and domestic consumption remains strong. A story on Vietnam’s thriving tea industry and the efforts to improve the quality and reputation of its tea will be featured in Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’s November issue.

After several days and many hours spent in Vietnam’s tea-growing areas both in the fields and in the factories where the tea is dried and processed, what impressed me the most was the women who work in tea. While much of Vietnam’s tea is harvested mechanically, some must still be hand-plucked such as in Moc Chau Tea Company’s gardens, and it is the women who do this. I was informed that women “are more patient and pay better attention to details” so they are better tea pluckers than men. I was fascinated by how quickly the women moved up and down the rows fastidiously plucking the tea leaves.

Afterwards, the women each placed a large sack of tea onto the back of their moped/scooter to be weighed. Then, they loaded the sacks onto a truck to be transported to the factory and returned to the field. Despite being in sunny, 90F/30C temps, the women were cheerful, dedicated and motivated. And for most of these women, after tea plucking was finished their day was not yet completed as they had to go home and take care of their families.

Shan tea trees grow wild in the mountains in Vietnam in Son La and Ha Giang provinces. I visited the Shantam Tea Company in Ta Xua village in Son La province later in the week. These ancient tea trees – many of them well over 200 years old – grow 1,500 to 2,900 meters above sea level, and given their height, take incredible skill, balance and coordination to climb and pluck — mechanical harvesting is not possible (both men and women pluck shan tea leaves) . The shan tea tree forest in Ta Xua village is owned by the indigenous H’Mong people, of which there are five tribes: flower, red, blue/green, black and white. The H’Mong women’s beautiful skirts, which they wear when plucking or working in the factory, are ornately detailed and vibrantly coloured, signify their specific tribe.

We arrived on a Saturday evening and the factory was still in operation as harvesting season had recently begun. Men and women were busy sorting fresh tea leaves, drying leaves and curling the leaves. Processing of the last tea batch finally stopped between 10pm and 11pm. The factory also featured a hostel that was adjacent to tea-processing room, where we stayed (to my surprise). While the tea processing was taking place, the women prepared and served dinner for all the guests, and then cleaned up after the meal. A little hot tea and relaxing, and then off to bed. The new day started literally when the roosters begin crowing around 4am.

On Sunday, the factory workers were technically “off” because there was no fresh tea to dry and process that day. However, the women prepared and served breakfast and lunch to guests, and of course, cleaned up. In between meal preparation and clean up, the women sewed skirts, made beaded jewelry, likely to sell in town, and straightened up the hostel rooms. Never-ending workdays for the women.

The next time you have a “cuppa,” think about who, not just what, goes into making that tea. I know I cannot help but think about these women and their efforts.

While you’re here, voting is now open for the inaugural Tea & Coffee Global Supplier Awards. Two awards will be presented – Best Tea Supplier and Best Coffee Supplier. Cast your vote via the Tea & Coffee World Cup website – https://www.tcworldcup.com/awards/

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