Huế was once the imperial capital of Vietnam, where the Nguyễn Lords ruled the country from their seat of power, The Citadel, in the heart of the Purple Forbidden City in Huế .
The Nguyễn dynasty adopted much of its high culture from imperial China. The preparation of tea within the Purple Forbidden City became steeped in ceremony, with grandiose requirements to satisfy the ever-demanding whims of the Nguyễn emperors, who elevated tea drinking beyond the ordinary, even as the aristocratic classes and the nobility seek to emulate the complexity of the tea ceremony practiced within the palace.
One of the most memorable sights during the reign of the Nguyễn dynasty’s Emperor Tự Đức were the row-boats carrying palace servants on the beautiful Tinh Tam Lake, where lotus flowers bloomed in abundance. There, during sunset, tea leaves were placed inside the lotus buds, and the flower petals were bound shut. The next morning, the servants would come back and harvest the tea-filled lotus flowers to be brought back to the palace, and brewed with morning dew collected from the lotus pads – for the gourmand Emperor Tự Đức would not have his tea any other way.
Some of the more bizarre types of tea to be found in the Purple Forbidden City during the old imperial days included the Tram Ma Tra (Horse-killing Tea), where the youngest and most tender tea leaves plucked were fed to a white horse that had been starved for one week. After ten minutes, when the horse would have ingested the tea leaves, the horse would be decapitated and its stomach cut open to retrieve the tea leaves. The leaves would then be dry-roasted over an open fire before being brewed.
Yet another bizarre, but less violent, tea was the Trinh Nu Tra (Scent of a Virgin Tea). Here, the most beautiful teenaged virgins would be bathed in perfumed waters, then dressed in loose-fitting clothes. Their sleeves and trouser ankles would be bound, and tea leaves placed inside their clothes. The virgins would sleep in these overnight. The next morning, the tea leaves would be retrieved from inside their clothes and dry-roasted, before being used to brew the emperor’s morning cuppa. Another instance of the excesses by the old emperors.
Because of its imperial past, the art of tea-drinking in Huế, more than in any other city in Vietnam, has been elevated to a high level similar to that of China and Japan, where the tea ceremony becomes an art form, incorporating contemplative and meditative qualities. Today, Huếans have sought to recreate the city’s love of tea preparation and drinking, and also incorporating the demonstration of other old art forms like making paper flowers for Tet celebration - for the benefit of visitors to the Purple Forbidden City. We got to experience this for ourselves last Wed at the Đông Khuyết Đài, near the Hien Nhon Gate of the Purple Forbidden City.
It was a rather entertaining afternoon - first, we were shown the art of paper-flower-making. These flowers were used for the Vietnamese New Year or Tết (which is shortened from Tết Nguyên Đán, the “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”).
Then, there was a “dance of the concubines” which, to my untrained eyes, seemed a bit too energetic and “modern” for something coming from the 19th-century (Emperor Tự Đức reigned from 1847-1883), but it was pretty entertaining nonetheless.
This was followed by a short presentation on the art of Vietnamese tea ceremony (in English for us, as requested). They require one day advance booking.
There are several types of tea available in Vietnam - Bac Thai, Hong Dan, Phu Tho, Thanh Tam. We were served at least two types:
Huếans also liked to serve light repasts with their tea - sugar-cured ginger is a favourite, but we also got to try various types of candied fruits and salted plums
A savoury imperial dish - glutinous rice ball filled with minced pork, and topped with gold leaf (chè bột lọc heo quay), was also served. It was absolutely delish, and reminded me a bit of the Royal Thai cuisine’s cho muang in terms of flavour and texture. I wouldn’t mind making a meal of it if they’d serve me a dozen or so of those dumplings.
Not exactly an afternoon tea meal, but more a nostalgic glimpse into the golden era of Huế’s imperial past in the 19th-century, when it was Vietnam’s cultural centre. Huếans then were known as “the people of the imperial capital”. I do feel the same pride in today’s Huếans, which sets them apart from the big-city Hanoians and Saigonites.
Đông Khuyết Đài - The Mosaic of Hue
Doan Thi Diem Street
Hien Nhon Gate, Hue Citadel, Thuan Thanh Ward
Hue 530000, Vietnam
To book a day head)