Thursday, 2018-06-28 07:23:49
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Lotus flowers release their sweetest fragrance when their pink petals are covered with dew.
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NDO – Hanoi’s West Lake is now an interesting place to enjoy a cup of lotus tea, although the flower is now less commonly grown on the lake’s waters.

It is 4.30am but I have hurriedly driven to West Lake which is overwhelmed by the sweet lotus fragrance. The dawn begins to be spotted with sunlight twinkling in the dew on the lotus leaves, which look like mini umbrellas on the water.

Pushing their small boats onto the lake, the lotus pickers skillfully control their vessels with long poles. They worm their way into the forest of lotuses and only their conical hats can be seen.

Boat-people pick both flowers and leaves to sell to their clients who are waiting on the bank. This is a wholesale business. Any dealer who wants to buy lotus flowers and leaves cheaply will often go there to buy directly at the lake, before selling them at their own shops in the inner city.

Nguyen Van Toan, a lotus picker, is looking for budding lotuses hiding behind the leaves. He says lotuses often open between 3.30-5.30am and he needs to pluck them at early dawn because the flower offers their sweetest fragrance when their pink petals are covered with dew.

“The weather condition also influences the quality of the lotus. Lotuses will release their best fragrance when the weather is cool,” Toan says. “You must pick it as quickly as possible so that the lotus bubs do not rumple. You will also need to drive the boat with great care as the dense lotus plants are full of small thorns.”

After one and half an hours, he returns to the bank of the lake with his boat full of lotus bubs. By now, the sun has shed all over the lake.

Toan has been connected with the lotus for tens of years. The plant is so familiar to him that with just a quick glance he is able to know whether it was grown in West Lake or not.

The lotus planted in West Lake, which grow from May to July, has been famous for hundreds of years for being used to scent tea thanks to its special fragrance and colour. They are a lighter pink and their fragrance is sweeter. The lotuses grown in other areas such as Hanoi’s Dong Anh district, Bac Ninh or Hung Yen provinces are bigger and of a darker pink hue, but are less fragrant because of the difference in the soil quality.

“Growing lotus is hard work and doesn’t provide me with a lot of profit, but it gives me a unique pleasure. I am sure that I am one of the happiest people in the world as I can breathe in the sweet fragrance of thousands of flowers every day, while sitting and sipping lotus-scented tea, looking out onto the immense lake,” Toan says proudly.

“This pleasure cannot be bought with money,” he says.

Lotus tea

The origin of lotus tea is unknown in Vietnam. But it has become a popular drink with a mystical aura. This beautiful flower is a symbol of Vietnam as it incarnates the refined and unyielding spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Not everyone can scent or make lotus tea. In principle, the tea which is used to be scented must be planted and processed in Ha Giang or Thai Nguyen provinces, where the highest quality tea is planted thanks to the ideal climate conditions.

Tea is poured onto the lotus flowers, which are then tied up. After a day, the tea is imbued with the lotus fragrance and the flowers are untied. The process is simple but can produce wonderfully fragrant tea for drinkers.

Using another method, the lotus petals are plucked off and the “rice grains” around the pistil are softly taken off. These grains are the major ingredient to make the tea. Often, each kilogramme of the tea is made from so many lotuses, depending on the size of the flowers, and is sold at VND2.5-3 million (US$142-170)

It often takes a fortnight to process a kilogramme of lotus tea, which undergoes nearly ten stages of processing.

The secret is that lotus tea makers must know the moisture of the air to decide what time to mix tea with lotus and how long the mixing process should last. For example, during rainy days, tea must be dried across a longer period of time, while during sunny days it can be dried for a shorter time.

In the days of old, enjoying lotus tea was an elegant favourite of royal families as it was believed that lotus tea could help them to be forever young and free of diseases. Technically, the dew on lotus leaves was used to make tea. People enjoyed lotus tea on a wooden couch under eaves, in a garden or in a lotus pond while composing poems and songs.

Only lotus planted in West Lake offer the best fragrance.

Nowadays, medical experts have proved that lotus tea can alleviate people’s stress, while lotus leaves can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and help in weight loss.

In order to enhance the medicinal qualities of the plant, you need to boil the leaves in water and then drink the infusion for several months.

Amid the hectic lifestyle, water to make the tea is often piped water or rainwater and lotus tea and lotus compotes are now favoured by both young and old people around the lake or in the inner city’s tea shops.

At a small tea shop by the lake, although types of beer and soft drinks can be found, I can still enjoy some lotus tea and compote offered by the shop owner.

“This type of tea must be enjoyed by the lotus pond and thus you will feel the most of its fragrance and taste. The enjoyment will culminate at night with a clear moon,” the shop owner says.

She says that, at weekends, young people often come here to enjoy this specialty.

“Firstly we are curious of the drink. But then we love it very much as it frees us from stress,” says Pham Thu Huyen, a student from Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

“In the past, the tea was only drunk by old people. Now, everything is quite different. Drinking tea is a new favourite among youngsters,” Huyen says.

Sipping some tea, she says that the first taste is often sort of bitter, but the taste will gradually turn sweeter.

“The tea seems to be symbolising our miniature mental life. Drinker and tea are fond friends. The bitter taste means our experiences and the sweet taste means the fruit of our life,” she meditates with a book in her hands.

A disappearing legacy

Several decades ago, West Lake remained overwhelmed with lotus in summer. However, only several hectares of lotus are grown next to the Water Park.

Chu Duc Trong, a local lotus grower, says that he has been planting lotus here for nearly 30 years.

“In the past, many households planted lotus. But now only several do,” he says.

He is not sure of the future of the lotus ponds here because the area is at a location that is greatly convenient for building houses, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

He says that many lotus tea makers have had to go to other localities in search of additional lotus sources. However, only lotus planted in the West Lake can offer the best fragrance.

“You see, even lotus sold at Quang Ba Flower Market (Hanoi’s famous flower market located by the lake) is from other localities, not from the lake,” Trong says.

Farmers like Trong and Toan, however, cannot make a living from lotus throughout the year as the season only lasts three months. “But lotus gives my family its main income. In fact, we also live on additional sources of incomes for the rest of the year,” Trong confides.