18/09/2009 | 18:44:00

Lotus power

A cup of lotus tea by West Lake is still a poetic experience for Vietnamese people despite the fact that the flower is now less commonly grown on the lake’s waters.

At 4.30am the scent of blossomed lotuses wafts across the bank of West Lake in Hanoi. As the sun rises slowly into the sky, lotus flowers open up all across the water. In the distance I can see lotus pickers in small rowing boats circumnavigating the area, deflowering the water. The plucked flowers are sold to traders back on dry land.

This is a wholesale business. Any flower trader in the city looking to sell lotuses will be here looking to buy in bulk. Nguyen Van Toan hit the water at 3.30am. The earlier you pick lotuses the sweeter the fragrance.

“The weather influences the quality of the lotus. Lotuses will be at their most fragrant when the weather is cool,” Toan says. “You must pick a lotus as quickly as possible so that the buds will not crumple up. You also need to row the boat gently through the lotuses.”

After an hour and a half on the water, he returns to the bank of the lake with a boat full of lotus bulbs. Toan has done this from the month of May till July every year for 10 years. He claims he is so familiar with the plant he can tell with one quick glance if a lotus is from West Lake or not.

Lotuses grown in other areas such as Dong Anh district, Bac Ninh or Hung Yen provinces are bigger, a darker shade of pink and less fragrant.

“Growing lotuses is hard work and I don’t make much money, but the work brings me pleasure. I am sure that I am one of the happiest people in the world as every day I can breathe in the sweet fragrance of the flowers while sitting and sipping lotus-scented tea, looking out across the lake,” says Toan.

“This is a pleasure that cannot be bought with money.” The highest quality tea from plantations in Ha Giang and Thai Nguyen provinces is used to make lotus tea. The tea is wrapped up with the lotus flowers and left for a day. That’s long enough for the unique scent of the flower to imbue the tea leaves with the distinct lotus flavour. Another way is to make tea out of the actual lotus anthers. A kilogramme of this tea can be made out of 2,000 lotuses (depending on the size) and would cost around VND2.5 to VND3 million ($142 to $170).

In Vietnamese culture, the lotus is symbolic of transparency. It is also a symbol of Vietnam (as well as of Vietnam Airlines) that represents the refined and unyielding spirit of Vietnamese people. The flower begins its life in the bottom of a mud pond but somehow makes its way to the surface. Warmed by the sun, its bud begins to open. Its beauty slowly unfolds and then bursts forth. Perhaps that’s why royalty in Vietnam often drank lotus tea in the hope that it could help them stay young and healthy (apparently just the dew on lotus leaves was used to make “tea” for the royal family).

Today, medical experts claim that lotus tea can at the very least ease stress levels, lower your blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels, if not quite defy the ageing process. For Vietnamese people, as there is a poetic association with the lotus flower, when you drink lotus tea it should be something of a poetic experience “This type of tea must be enjoyed beside a lotus pond where you will have a greater sense of the fragrance and taste,” says one tea shop owner by West Lake. It’s not just a traditional drink preferred by older generations. At the tea shop a group of young students are keen to inspire their studies with a taste of lotus tea.

“At first we were just curious about lotus tea but we’ve all come to love it,” says Pham Thu Huyen, a student from Hanoi National University. “The first sip seems bitter but really it’s quite sweet.” Several decades ago, West Lake was covered with lotus flowers in summer, but nowadays only a few hectares are allocated to growing the flower. Chu Duc Trong has grown lotus on West Lake for nearly 30 years.

“In the past, many households around the lake planted lotus flowers here. But now only a handful do,” he says. He also claims that the remaining lotus growers’ livelihood is under threat as more and more developments shoot up around the lake. “The lake water is seriously polluted, which makes it difficult for lotus flowers to grow,” he says. As a result tea producers are sourcing lotus flowers elsewhere, though Trong is adamant that the lotus planted on West Lake offers the best fragrance./.



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