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  • Writer's pictureNeldon Hamblin

Pesticides and Propaganda: How China Impacts the Vietnamese Tea Industry

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Today's post is a bit different and is the culmination of over a year's worth of research and interviews. My first experience with Vietnamese tea was in 2020, where I had a lovely, syrupy sweet Vietnamese oriental beauty oolong. However, as soon as I had shared to my stories on Instagram, I had received multiple messages, all with the same concern: “don’t drink too much of that, Vietnamese teas are bad for you,” or a message from one concerned friend who said that “I would be careful drinking that, Vietnamese teas are loaded with pesticides.” At this point in my tea journey, I was a novice and much more afraid and skeptical of things, so I unfortunately listened to them and put that tea aside, despite having initially loved drinking it. 


Long, thin tea leaves, known as Trà Chít
Trà Chít- one of my gateway Vietnamese teas

Back in July of 2022, I had another opportunity to try a few Vietnamese teas, sent to me by a good friend. One of these teas, Trà Chít, is one of the most delicious teas I've ever had, having a flavor and energy reminiscent of an aged gushu sheng. Moved by this, I looked into where I could purchase more Vietnamese teas, though I found that unlike with puerh, very few vendors specialized in teas grown in Vietnam, and those that did offered a very limited selection. When I initially approached a vendor (who wished to remain anonymous) about Vietnamese teas, they mentioned that many people are skeptical of Vietnamese teas due to chemical contamination from DX or a general concern about pesticide use. Upon further research, I discovered that the Vietnamese tea industry is mired in a pool of misinformation deliberately spread by outside competitors to keep specialty Vietnamese teas out of the market and to keep the price of the leaves low, reducing competition for products in countries like Taiwan. I eventually managed to interview 4 Vietnamese tea farmers, 4 Vietnamese tea vendors, and 2 Vietnamese tea experts, most of which wished to remain anonymous (though they did provide permissions for my use of the information they shared with me), in my attempts to better understand the situation with Vietnamese teas. So, buckle up, this is going to be a bit of a wild ride. 


The History of Vietnamese Teas


A group of Red Dzao and Hmong people in traditinal dress in Vietnam
The Red Dzao and Hmong People in Hà Giang (image courtesy Steve of VietSun Tea)

Vietnam has a long and storied history, with tea specifically being produced and consumed in Vietnam for over 1,000 years now by the various indigenous populations and ethnic groups of the region, like the Hmong or the Red Dzao (also referred to as "Red Dao"). Tea plants grow wild in Vietnam, though the areas with the largest production are Thai Nguyen, Ha Giang, and Lam Dong, followed by Phu To, Son La, Yen Bai, Nghe an, and Tuyen Quang (Areas from Steve and Thơm, VietsunTea; data from FAO). Teas like Trà Mạn Hảo, a sort-of aged tea comparable to a traditional Yunnanese puerh, were primarily produced in the Northwestern part of Vietnam in the Shan Tuyet area. Trà Mạn Hảo was popular between the 19th and early 20th centuries, being associated with royalty and the upper classes, but the production of it faded during colonial occupation, with tea production shifting to focus more on green teas and oolongs. Thankfully, though, this type of tea production has survived into the modern day and can be found, albeit usually at a more premium price point as it is a specialty tea. Domestically, Thai Nguyen green tea is the most common tea in modern day Vietnam. While Vietnam is primarily a coffee-drinking country, Northern Vietnam still consumes large amounts of greener teas. Local indigenous populations also continue to make infused teas like lotus and jasmine. 


Like many countries,Vietnam was not spared from European imperialism and the desire to get into the tea boom; the French Empire took note of Vietnam's agricultural conditions and, by the 1880s, began producing and distributing Vietnamese teas and agricultural goods. Under the early French colonial government, tea production increased as colonial plantations with stricter production quotas and limited production types were established, along with the first tea research facilities in Vietnam. This led to a larger amount of Vietnamese teas being exported globally for what really was the first time.  Interestingly enough, statistics from 1945 show that altogether 13,585 ha (hectares) total acreage (or about 52 square miles) was covered by tea plants across all of Vietnam in that year. From these, 6000 tons of black, green and puerh-like teas were produced. However, as is human history, several conflicts (the Japanese invasion in 1940, the Japanese coup in 1945, and the Vietnam War from 1955-1975) coupled with the 1945 famine (during which between 400,000 and 2 million Vietnamese starved due to things like Japanese occupation, American attacks, and the French Colonial government’s cruel policies of overharvesting goods and stealing foods from farmers to feed their troops) effectively led to a massive decline in tea production in Vietnam (Hopkins). The influences of the Colonial French system can still be seen in the way modern-day Vietnam approaches tea making (quantity over quality), with commercial farms focusing mostly on increasing yield for the international market and culling crops that encroach on the tea plantations, yet most of these are located close to or on land where wild and ancient tea trees exist.


Tea Trees in Vietnam


With the implementation of Đổi Mới policies in 1986 (policies aimed at shifting Vietnam’s economy from a centralized, state-planned command economy to a more socialized, market-oriented economy), we begin to see industries like agriculture become stronger year after year, flourishing with these newfound economic liberties. In the 1980s and 1990s, with the economic freedom of Đổi Mới, Taiwanese tea makers set up shop in areas like Bao Loc and Moc Chau, planting Taiwanese oolong varietals and making Taiwanese-style oolongs, selling them as such despite being Vietnamese grown. With Vietnam having joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, we can also see an increased amount of financial opportunities for the Vietnamese people, of which about 70% currently rely on agricultural income. 


In recent years, Vietnamese teas have begun to grow in popularity, though not for the reasons you might think. Instead of growing in popularity for its specialty teas and experiencing a boom like other tea regions, Vietnamese tea has grown in popularity for being affordable on the international market. This affordability leads to companies in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere purchasing massive amounts of raw leaf from Vietnamese farmers, to be used in fulfilling the demand for their own speciality teas, like oolongs and puerhs, leading us into the current, growing industry in Vietnam. 


A Growing Industry of Export: Pesticides and Propaganda Galore


A cluster of tea leaves on a rock in Vietnam
Tea Leaves in Vietnam

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015 report, titled “World tea production and trade: Current and future development,” Vietnam is currently the world’s sixth largest tea producer and fifth largest tea exporter globally, growing an annual average of 160,000 metric tonnes of tea (about 198,000 tons)- and that was with the 7.5% decrease in production in 2013, which has since recovered. As it currently stands, the vast majority of Vietnamese tea is sold as raw leaf, exported to other tea-producing countries like Taiwan and China to fill that gap for their specialty teas. This raw leaf is entirely a Vietnamese product, with Vietnamese farmers caring for the trees, harvesting the teas and processing the leaves minimally before shipping, yet often ends up blended into other materials to make up a bulk batch of an entirely different tea. For example, in 2021, one of the largest big-box-retailers was found to be selling a Taiwanese Shan Lin Xi oolong that was actually composed of nearly 90% Vietnamese tea. In this particular case, a tea dealer had sold tea bags marketed as Shan Lin Xi high mountain oolong, yet the tea itself had been blended. The individual admitted that they had blended 918 kg of Vietnamese leaf with 90 kg of Taiwanese material, or nearly a 1:10 ratio of Taiwanese to Vietnamese material. They claimed that they had done this to fulfill the order they had promised and there was a market shortage for authentic Shan Lin Xi material. The reason the individual had blended this tea is partially also due to cost; as “authentic Shan Lin Xi high mountain oolong tea costs as much as NT$1,465 (US$46.51) per kilogram while imported Vietnamese tea costs only NT$122 (US$3.86),” meaning that not only would the individual be able to push a large amount of product, but make a decent margin on their product (Chiang). However, because the factory had claimed in their contract that the individual was purchasing pure Taiwanese leaf, the entire lot was ordered destroyed and it was the factory held liable, not the middleman who bought the leaf for distribution. Because of this fraud, the factory was forced to pay a fine equivalent to almost $22,000USD (NT 700,000). 


Taiwanese import laws are notoriously strict for their allowances of contaminants in agricultural products, and tea is certainly no exception. According to official statistics for 2016 from Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration, about 2% of imported tea violates regulations regarding pesticide residue, compared with 3% of tea produced inside Taiwan (Food and Drug Administration, 2016). These statistics also indicate that of the tea violating these regulations, less than 2% was imported from Vietnam (Hung and Lien, 2019). Should a crop be denied entry into Taiwan, not only will the farmers be at risk, but the importers themselves likely face bankruptcy over such a large loss of profit. In this case, farmers are extremely cautious about their use of pesticides in some of these farms (obviously there are exceptions to this), especially in the higher-mountain areas like Shan Tuyet, to ensure that their product will be accepted by Taiwanese customs. 


So, that begs the question: if Taiwanese import laws and quality standards are so strict, and Vietnamese tea leaves are the largest tea import for Taiwan, why is there still this rumor that Vietnamese tea is pesticide-laden and contaminated? It turns out, it mostly has to do with marketing and propaganda from outside competitors to keep the Vietnamese tea industry from becoming a major force in international trade.


Bamboo trays lined with green tea leaves withering in the Vietnamese sun in Hà Giang, Vietnam.
Tea Leaves Withering in Hà Giang, Vietnam

Now, as a caveat, of course there are exceptions to this, where farmers are working to increase yield and meet demand through using more pesticides, as this happens in every country with intensive agriculture, and this is an all-too-common occurrence on plantation farms; that being said, overall the Vietnamese industry has been becoming greener for the past 20 years now and has significantly cleaned up their exports, and teas exported from Vietnam are subject to heavy testing before they're allowed to be imported into countries like Taiwan or members of the EU. In fact, in a 2022 study by Tuan Kiet-Ly et al. analyzing 397 pesticide residues in commercially available teas, it was found that “in terms of origin, Taiwan had the most pesticide-contaminated samples with 83.3%; followed by China (73.7%), Vietnam (64.7%), and India (55%)” (Kiet-Ly et al., 2022). 


This does create an issue with the above-mentioned statistics, as if Taiwanese oolong makers are importing Vietnamese leaf to fill demand, the higher pesticide content very well could have come from Vietnamese material being sold as Taiwanese. In this case, it is difficult to determine the origin of the leaves without being an expert and following the leaves every step of the way, though the statistic above does show that while Vietnamese teas can contain pesticides, it tends to be in a lower concentration than teas from other countries. 


So, if that’s the case, what exactly is keeping Vietnamese teas fairly obscured from the market? The simple answer: propaganda. By keeping this outdated rumor floating that all Vietnamese teas are low quality and coated in copious amounts of pesticide, tea prices remain low. Tea is ultimately an industry driven by prices, not necessarily quality, and if the prices can be kept low, companies can turn this raw material into massive profit. This is exactly the case with Vietnamese teas: the cheap leaves are being used to fill the market demand for teas like Taiwanese oolongs. By taking advantage of the remnants of the colonial system of quantity over quality, buyers can take advantage of the situation and turn a massive profit using Vietnamese leaves. As we saw above, the prices for Vietnamese material are significantly lower than the prices for other raw leaf, providing a massive incentive for companies to keep these rumors spreading. After all, if you can continue to buy tea for cheap and turn a massive profit, why would you as a company want to do something to jeopardize that return? 


A photo taken at noon in Lung Phin, Ha Giang
Lung Phin, Ha Giang

The Greener Future of Vietnamese Teas


Vietnam is working hard to improve the quality of their teas, implementing new farming standards and enacting new regulations on which pesticides can be used on plants. While pesticides are undoubtedly still used on some farms (again, having a large-scale agricultural industry like tea and expecting it to be entirely pesticide free is an unrealistic standard) here have been increased efforts from organizations like the United Nations' Environment Programme, which has worked with Vietnamese farmers to increase education of sustainable and "greener" farming practices. 


I reached out to several Vietnamese tea farmers throughout my research, 3 of whom wished to remain unnamed. One Vietnamese tea farmer and local tour guide, Long Trà Shan Tuyết, graciously met with me to discuss this a bit further. I asked him a few questions about the current market and the difficulties faced in trying to sell products to a Western audience. In his words, specifically in his experience dealing with European tea lovers, he stated “they are very afraid of Vietnamese shan tea sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, like chemical fertilizers.” In this case, many are hesitant to buy Vietnamese tea because of this reputation for heavy pesticide use, yet the farmers themselves live at a lower altitude, below the tea gardens, so as not “to affect the quality and taste of the tea.” 


Additionally, he also mentioned that they currently send samples of their tea to the local research institute to check for quality when chemicals are noticed in the tea by a foreign consumer, but that the cost of testing and getting a certificate confirming the cleanliness of the tea is a “very high price” and “unaffordable to us and most vendors,” as well as the fact that the “income from Shan Tuyet tea trees is unstable.” In order to make a profit, he mentioned that the majority of his tea is sold to China as loose leaf material to fulfill their market demands. This represents another issue entirely: if we, as consumers, are to expect or rather demand “organic” teas or for our teas to be inspected before drinking, we should also realize that this not only will come with higher costs, it also places an unrealistic expectation for the average farmer, as material testing and organic certifications are quite costly, being $500 or more plus additional startup costs.


A man stands next to a large tea tree with a thick and moss encrusted the trunk.
Steve of VietSun Tea standing next to an old tea tree in Tà Xùa

Another massive concern was raised by Steve of VietSun tea, a tea company founded in 2022 dedicated to sharing vietnamese teas with the world. He stressed the importance of conserving the wild tea areas in Vietnam. One of the above sources mentioned that because China, as the largest customer for Vietnamese tea farmers, focuses on primarily purchasing cheap tea, in many areas, the tea trees are pruned excessively to stimulate higher yields. They mentioned that this pruning creates a higher yield in the short-term but ultimately creates “unhealthy and dying tea trees.” This is also an issue addressed by the UNEP, which is focusing on educating farmers in sustainable farming practices, so this might change in the future. What consumers can do is start buying more specialty teas, which will provide an incentive to the farmers, in turn leading to a gradual shift in production and tea tree management strategies over time. 


Having spoken with other farmers in Vietnam, as well as 2 additional tea companies focused on selling Vietnamese specialty teas globally (which shall remain anonymous per their request), the biggest thing they wished readers to know was this: there is so much potential for Vietnamese teas, especially older tree assamica and wild varietals, but there is a lot of mismanagement currently as well as a lack of demand for high quality teas to make a significant change at the moment. Other key factors to this are that the domestic market in Vietnam is increasing (especially with the aforementioned Thai Nguyen green tea), as well as government initiatives to increase sustainability in tea growing regions, like the UNEP and its educational works. However, much remains on this front, as one individual (who wished to remain anonymous) mentioned that there still is a problem of little education being provided to the Vietnamese people to be the final producers of their teas coupled with inaction from the Vietnamese government. This individual also mentioned that farmers have complained that they cannot gain the skill sets they need to create a finished product, which is why they settle on selling the raw materials. This ties back to the earlier issue of protectionism and spreading rumors to subdue the Vietnamese industry, as other tea-producing countries are not willing to share their processes for making the tea (as it’s proprietary information and they get cheap material from Vietnam, being a win-win situation for them) with the farmers. As long as this demand for specialty teas from Vietnam remains low, the incentive for farmers to focus on specialized teas will be low as well. So, in essence, this means that farmers themselves have these 3 major concerns: 1) lack of international interest in speciality Vietnamese teas, 2.) the unaffordable nature of becoming certified organic, and 3.) an unstable market, with the only certainties being the promise of foreign agents buying the raw leaves for export. These three reasons explain why we see such rampant protectionism in the industry, keeping Vietnamese teas off market and instead focusing on feeding a growing industry with their raw materials. As long as these three remain constant, the protectionism and issues we see plaguing the Vietnamese tea market will unfortunately continue to occur. 


The Impacts of Industry and Consumer Demands


Processing Tea in Hà Giang, Vietnam
Processing Tea in Hà Giang, Vietnam

Vietnam is a country with a complex history, having faced significant difficulties in the past and present world. The Vietnamese tea industry is no different; while the land itself provides the ideal growing conditions for tea and Vietnamese tea farmers are dedicated to their craft, producing delightful teas, the industry as a whole focuses mostly on producing a massive volume of leaf for export rather than specialty teas. The bulk of Vietnamese black, green, and oolong tea end up on the international market destined to be blended and sold without the connection to the land. 


As consumers, we need to be alert that our buying habits can have a ripple effect on global trends, and that the drive to produce quantity over quality can create a sort-of pressure on smaller farms (ones that emphasize more traditional and specialty tea making practices) to follow those trends to appeal to the market. However, as previously mentioned, if we as consumers raise the demand for higher quality, specialty tea from Vietnam, not only will it help convince the farmers that specialized production would be a better deal than selling cheap tea to China, but it also will help companies introduce more sustainable tea management practices. By increasing the demand for specialty teas, we as consumers can lead to a gradual shift in production and tea area management practices, ensuring that the future of Vietnamese teas remains green and available for generations to come.


If you have never experienced Vietnamese tea before, I would definitely recommend checking your local suppliers for them; some online vendors with wonderful teas are Viet Sun Tea, hatvala tea, as well as local Vietnamese farmers through instagram, like Long Trà Shan Tuyết.



Acknowledgements:


Thank you to all who participated in this and thank you to the Vietnamese farmers who graciously allowed me to interview them. Special thanks to Steve and Thơm of VietSun tea, who spent many hours working with me to connect me to potential leads as well as providing valuable insights into the Vietnamese tea industry. Steve and Thơm also provided me with the photos to use for this post. Without their gracious help, I would not have been able to make this what it is. Thank you to all who have contributed and for your continued support of my blog!



Additional Sources Used:

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