An ancient tea tree in Lao Chai, the northern province of Ha Giang
Vietnam boasts a vast wealth of ancient tea trees that are still waiting to be discovered, developed and protected.
According to scant mention in historic materials and scientific research, ancient tea trees are mainly located in the northern highland provinces of Lang Son, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai.
Some of them are said to be up to tens of meters tall with trunks that span the lenth of three mens' arms.
Following rare information supplied by ethnic minority peoples whose lives are closely connected to ancient trees, a group of Saigon Tiep Thi reporters journeyed to the Hoang Lien Son Range, which sits between Lao Cai, Lai Chau and Yen Bai provinces.
The reporters said they followed the path that tourists usually take to conquer the famous Fansipan Mountain with a guide. It took them over three hours to reach their destination - some 2,200 meters above the sea level.
During an hour-long trek through the forest, the team passed many tea treas which seemed to grow naturally without any sign of human interference. Some were so wide that it took two reporters to fully wrap their arms around the trunks.
"Ancient tea trees are always present at the heights of between 2,200-2,800 meters around the Fansipan peak, but the higher it is, the smaller the tea trees are," the guide said.
Taking some tea leaves, the reporters came back to a tourist camp, and prepared a pot of tea. The group found the brew pleasantly sweet. The flavor stuck to their palates for quite a long time, despite the drink's light green color.
When presented with a bowl of tea, Catherine, a Hong Kong tourist, was surprised.
She said that Vietnamese green tea is usually acrid and not easy to drink and she was surpised by the ancient trees' pleasant flavor.
While ancient tea trees like those on Hoang Lien Son are unknown to many people, even experts, those in Ha Giang province, also known as shan tuyet Ha Giang tea, began appearing in urban markets in the 1990s.
In 1999 it was even recognized as the product of "golden quality" during a Tea Week held in Hanoi.
Ngo Viet Thanh, a tea trader, said that shan tuyet tea trees naturally grow at heights of more than 1,000 meters above sea level without human care.
Local ethnic minority tribes regard the tree as a gift from God. As a result, they only harvest a few leaves at a time and don't bother pruning or cultivating it.
"Therefore, the raw tea leaves are totally clean, which is an important factor to achieve a good quality tea," he said.
After winning its early acclaim, however the tea nearly disappeared from local market.
Thanh said transportation challenges make it easier for local harvesters to sell the leaves to nearby Chinese traders instead of bringing them down to lowland markets.
In fact, it took over two hours to reach the lowland from Nhiu Shang Hamlet-which boats a thriving crop of the trees. People have to travel more than 50 kilometers, along cliffs and dropoff to deliver their cargo.
At the same time, Chinese tea markets sit just a couple of kilometers over the border, Thanh said.
Usually the tea is sold for very little money, but after blending it into the famous Chinese pu-erh, whose price can increase a hundred fold, he added.
More than ten kilometers from Nhiu Shang, the Hmong community in Lao Chai Commune, faces the same perdicament - though their trees are even larger.
"Until now, shan tuyet Ha Giang has yet to be developed effectively and is still far from the lowland," said Thanh, who has worked for the past ten years to bring the tea to the lowland market.
Worse still, due to the lack of knowledge about the trees' value, locals began cutting down large trees to sell as lumber across the border in 2008, according to local tea traders.
At the moment, only small tea trees with trunks between 20-40 centimeters in diameter are available in Ha Giang.
The group says that tea trees are considered cultivated plants not true trees. As a result, they aren't protected by logging laws.
The Hmong people who own a forest of ancient tea trees in Xin Chai Commune, Dien Bien Province are also struggling to protect them.
However, the century-old trees there seem to be luckier, because several of locals understand their value.
Hang A Chu, who owns many trees in the commune, said that Hau Chua village once boasted many tea trees, but while he was serving in the military a group of locals cut them all down to make room for farm land.
When he returned in 1982 two-thirds of the forest had already been destroyed, he said.
"I told people that the tea trees are precious, so just leave them there, and that when we aren't in harvest season, we can live on them," Chu said, adding that he also told them to sell the trees to him if they didn't need them.
"Thanks to that, I have so many ancient tea trees and Hau Chua has kept many trees like now."
Meanwhile, Phan Trong Nhat came to live among the locals in the hopes that he would one day be able to bring the ancient flavors down into the lowlands.
Nhat even established a place to teach them about drying leaves in the village of Tao Chua.
Nhat said that, once every week or every month, he buys tea from locals to sell to tourists in the lowland.
He said to engage ethnic minority peoples like Hmong, Xa Phang and Thai in producing tea, one needs to live with them and understand them. Without that understanding, even the best laid plans will fail, he said.