My college friend Nguyen Minh Chi is a tea lover – to put it mildly. Such is Chi's passion for green tea, yellow tea, Oolong tea, black tea, white tea, blended tea (Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Jasmine tea) – you name it she likes it – that Chi's idea of a perfect day out is to visit a tea plantation and take photos of tea plants (she is a keen amateur photographer). Oh, and of course attending the tea party afterwards.
Chi, an avid traveller who spends most of the year on the road, recently visited the tea plantation of Moc Chau Plateau, in the north western province of Son La, about 180km from Ha Noi. "I've travelled all over the country and seen some wonderful places, but Moc Chau was truly breathtaking," Chi says on returning to Ha Noi. And to cap it all, the temperature is cool, much like Sa Pa in the north and Da Lat in the south, she adds.
A refreshing breeze usually brushes the slopes of the plateau at this time of year. Moc Chau, one of the biggest plateaux in the country, stretches some 80km long and 25km wide, and stands about 1,050m above sea level. As a result, its average temperature is a cool 16-26oC.
The district is home to 3,000ha of tea gardens.
Unlike the dusty city of Moc Chau, the plateau is lush and green as far as the eye can see.
Chi visited the Moc Suong Tea Company in Tan Lap Commune, a private enterprise that has recently begun offering tours to visitors who are given the chance to work in the fields and processing warehouse.
There Chi joined a small group of tourists who were taken on a guided tour of the plantation.
"It is incredible! I have seen rice fields in many countryside towns. They are beautiful but Moc Chau plateau is really much more special," gushes Chi.
Farmhands: Visiting a Moc Suong Co tea farm, tourists will have the chance to join in the harvest and processing of grean tea.
"I would never grow bored of standing in that tea plantation and looking at the lush greenery around me. I feel like I am in heaven. I want more and more." Chi and the rest of the visitors were taken to see trees that are dozens of years old and produce the best quality leaves. (A tea plant will grow into a tree of up to 16m if left undisturbed, but cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for ease of plucking).
After a short lesson on technique from a field hand, Chi is then taken out into the tea garden to pick leaves and buds (technically know as flushes).
"Tourists in effect become one of our workers," says Nguyen Phu Hau, director of the Moc Suong Company. "Workers are responsible for gardening, caring for the trees and bushes in the fields and processing the picked leaves and buds. They can also take part in collective activities such as eating in our canteen and resting with the other workers, most of whom are local ethnic people," Hau says.
"It is the best way to learn about the tea-making business and to discover what life is truly like on the plantation. You can't learn this from a book."
However, be warned, the work, which requires a certain degree of skill and technique, can be back breaking.
"It is not as easy to pluck the leaves as we see the workers do. You must get as many leaves as possible while not damaging the plants," Chi says, adding that the post-harvest activities are even more complicated and require a lot of labour.
Hau points out that tea leaves are harvested for nine months of the year, from April to December. It is commonly believed that the tea leaves picked in April produce the best-tasting tea because the very first leaves of the harvest season have had four months to rest and contain valuable extracts.
The leaves are picked from 9am to 3pm – considered the best time of the day.
After several hours in the fields, the visitors take their plucked leaves to the workshop, where the drying and fermenting [tea leaves soon begin to wilt and oxidise "ferment" if not dried quickly after picking.] They are then rolled and vacuum-packed.
Among the teas produced in Moc Chau are Oolong, Kim Tuyen and Shan Tuyet. Shan Tuyet is grown on the greater part of the plateau, and was first to be planted some 50 years ago.
Each variety is processed differently. Chi and other tourists were shown how to make Oolong.
Hoang Van Thu, a visitor from Hai Phong, who was enjoying a relaxing cup of tea after working in the fields, was relishing her first trip to a tea plantation.
"I have really enjoyed my time here. I have been picking in the fields, processing the tea, and now enjoying the final product. For me, drinking the tea that I have helped to make is just fabulous. And I am sure that my friends will be jealous when they hear my story," Thu says, while sitting in a tea hut.
"After one day working hard there is nothing better than a tea party in the heart of the field. Here we can taste perfect hot tea while breathing in the aroma of the plants and listening to the rustle of the leaves in the breeze."
Hau is delighted with the success of the tours.
"Moc Chau is a destination of unknown beauty. Tea field tours are just one of the many ways to lure more tourists here," Hau says.
Tran Thanh Hai, chairman of the Moc Chau District's People's Committee, is also delighted with the popularity of the tea plantation tours.
"These tourism activities are new to Moc Chau. Here we have created comfortable conditions for visitors to experience first hand the beauty of our surroundings and to work in the fields alongside our other workers. This is not done anywhere else in Viet Nam.
"If there is the demand, we will also take visitors on tours of the surrounding ethnic villages."
Chi, on returning to Ha Noi, is still relishing her visit to Moc Chau. She says she plans to have her wedding photos taking on the plateau – while enjoying a nice cuppa.