Several Taiwan oolong teas have become quite well-known to tea drinkers all over the world. Dong Ding, Baozhong, Oriental Beauty, and more-recently, its high mountain oolongs. Taiwan’s tea technology and production skills have also been brought to other countries, particularly those in SE Asia. Arable mountain land and lower production costs are good reasons why parts of SE Asia were picked for production of Taiwan-style high mountain oolong.
Vietnam’s oolong production in particular has benefited greatly from Taiwan’s investment of skill and technology. Its main tea production regions are in the north of the country and in the central mountainous areas. Da Lat is one such tea-producing area.
Da Lat is a city in the central highlands of the country. With an elevation in excess of 1000 meters, it meets Taiwan’s altitude standard for high mountain tea. Some of my ancestors were merchants from southern China, and among their properties was a vacation home in Da Lat. My parents spent some time there before the Vietnam War and the property, they believe, was eventually taken by the Communists after the fall of South Vietnam. I’ve been told that it’s an especially beautiful environment with mountain and ocean views, cool temperatures, morning mists and that it is an ideal spot for resorts and recreation.
Da Lat has a moderate climate with regular rainfall and is excellent for the production of tea. I first tried Vietnam-produced Taiwan-style oolong in 2008, when an acquaintance imported the tea for his chain of supermarkets. The name of the tea is Tam Chau Flower Oolong and if you can’t find it in your local grocery mart, this company’s site carries it for about the same price I bought it for. What’s interesting is that the site states this tea is very similar to the Formosa Oolong 18 varietal, which I don’t believe is an oolong varietal, but a newer black tea varietal. I understand from talking with distributors that have worked with the Vietnam tea market that much of the Taiwan-style tea that is grown over there is made from oolong varieties like Jinxuan and Sijichun, and to a lesser extent, Qingxin. There are, however, multiple numerical systems, not least of which is one that the older farmers use and another one that is more widely-recognized. No expert in the tea varietals myself, I don’t know if there is another 台茶18號 other than the black tea varietal known as Hongyu. The tea did not taste like a high-grade Lishan or Alishan, but reminded me more of a Sijichun. The picking is high-mountain tea style, but the leaves are more rounded – not sharp-edged like Qingxin.
I bought a can and had several tea friends try it in a blind taste test. When the tasters tried the tea, most had no idea that it wasn’t from Taiwan. It is not a premium grade of tea (as the site suggests), but it exhibited the fresh and floral attributes that Taiwan oolong is known for. The rolling was pretty good, but the leaves were not supple, smaller or shorter-stemmed, which are some indications of a higher quality tea.
I’ve tried several other Vietnam oolongs since 2008. Not only have I heard about and tried teas that demonstrate the improving quality of Vietnam oolong, but I’ve tried some that rival a solid Taiwan Alishan oolong in taste and appearance (no surprise, the plant varietals are the same). In 2009, I received a gift from a family friend that had traveled to Da Lat and northern Vietnam on vacation. The quality of the tea was good; tightly rolled, 2 leaf/1 bud picking, softer stems from younger leaves. The “tourist price” rivals that of a premium Taiwan-produced oolong (~$70 for ~250 grams).
For now, Taiwan’s best high-mountain oolongs are still the best examples of those teas, but Vietnam (and maybe some other SE Asian countries?) is closing the gap. Oolong production outside of Taiwan and China will continue and the skill level will increase. Vietnam’s oolong teas have piqued my curiosity, and I’ll share some more of what I’ve learned about the relationship between the Taiwanese and Vietnamese tea industries soon.