[Hue, Vietnam] Royal Tea Ceremony at Đông Khuyết Đài, the Citadel

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. :joy:

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)


A ruse if ever there was one. :smile:


YUP!! :joy:
Goes to show how depraved the palace folks had become. Mind you - it was also a time when any woman who entered the Purple Forbidden City would never be able to come out again.

Really over the top but I would still want to experience it. Thanks for this!

No ear cleaning like in Chengdu :smiley:

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Over the top is an understatement - we were agape. :joy::joy::joy:
Yes, definitely worth a visit!

Good Lord, no! :laughing:

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I had tea several times at a temple, no tea ceremony or anything like that. There’s an ear cleaning professional who works in the tea garden every day. We each had our ears cleaned finally, on the third time being in Chengdu, and it was a terrifying experience.

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Ear-cleaning is an ancient art form for the Chinese - even some barbers were trained in the technique. My Dad’s old barber (he’s in his 80s and retired now) used to tell us how, when he was a teenaged apprentice, his “master” would train him in the art of ear-picking. The final test was when he had to use a metal ear-pick to remove delicate layers of membranes from within a raw onion, ring by ring without tearing any, until his master was satisfied.

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Peter - Normally I love your very educational and entertaining posts and look forward to reading them, but I really could have done without the horse tea description. You shouldn’t censor yourself of course, but I wish you had left it out. By the time I realized what I was reading, it was already too late. Guess I’ll need to read more carefully now.

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Well, like you, I don’t feel comfortable with the white horse tea, so cruel. Actually I took some time to understand, are they still doing this tea today to show in the Dong Khuyet Dai?! I tried to read more, but there are only Vietnamese websites, looks like it was a thing originated from China. Not only they forced the horses to eat the tea leaves, but they forced them to drink certain spring water. I wonder the tea tasted blood too.

Horse fermented tea, greasy tea from the smelly teens. I think I’ll better stop drinking tea. :sweat_smile:

My apologies - it took me quite a while, too, to decide on whether to share it. Of course, the practice was from the “bad old days” and would have died out long ago.


Definitely not - some of these extreme incidences are perhaps told to remind people today of the excesses of the old imperial regime.


No problem of sharing. It’s some hardcore stuff from the past. Thanks for the beautiful ceremony.


I think you made the right decision. You are recounting your current experience of the royal tea ceremony. The history is inherently important. My thanks for sharing the information.


Glad you chose to tell it. I want to know about the less pleasant aspects of something or someone, too.


Ugh, China’s past was built on blood, and unbelievable cruelty. The Chinese would like to believe that Vietnam was really a part of greater China, whilst the Vietnamese really resent that, and are fiercely proud of their own culture and traditions, even if many of them share the same origins as Chinese ones.

I remembered my first time in Vietnam a couple of decades ago - I was browsing a local bookshop in Ho Chi Minh City when I came across a “Do’s-and-don’ts” book targeted at foreigners who wanted to know more about Vietnamese culture and way of life. I bought it and read it cover-to-cover, and realised that all their taboos and practices, even food, festivals, etc. were what we Chinese would practice back in Singapore or Malaysia!

For the whole baby-boomer generation of Singaporeans and Malaysians who were born during the height of the Vietnam War, we were totally cut-off from our Indo-Chinese neighbours just because of ideological differences. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on one side with the Americans, and on the other side: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with the Russians and Communist China.

Consequently, we grew up in Singapore being familiar with Thai food, Thai culture, religion, places. Then, as we visited an “alien” Vietnam for the first time - for me, it was in 2000 - we were shocked that, whilst our Thai neighbour’s culture has about 30% similarity to ours, our Vietnamese neighbour is almost 100% the same as ours!


Actually, when one sees the Chinese characters especially in the Northern Vietnamese temples and Chinese influenced dishes. I don’t have proof, but I’ve a feeling that the beef pho is maybe a cousin to the beef brisket ho fun noodle soup. I remember the Vietnamese tour guide explained how Vietnam was conquered by China many times in the history and it was a difficult relationship. The way how they changed their written language into Latin alphabets was a kind of encryption to avoid the Chinese to understand their communication.


Sounds like learning martial arts in Shaolin temple! Fascinating.

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