The traditional drinking culture of the Vietnamese people can be split into two categories, partly influenced by the Chinese: drinking liquor and drinking tea. These two practices both seem to bring pleasure, relieve stress, or even simply quench thirst. However, if you look carefully into Vietnamese tradition, tea is not just a beverage to drink when you’re thirsty; drinking tea makes you feel better too. Today, let’s meet Ms. Ngoc – the founder of Hatvala and discover her story to build an exquisite local tea brand that’s reaching far across the Vietnamese border.
What is Hatvala?
Founded in 2012, Hatvala is a Vietnamese tea store with more than 20 lines of fine hand-picked teas solely prepared in this country. But more specifically, Hatvala is local and organic. Throughout its six years of operation, Hatvala tea has now been exported to more than 40 countries in the world. As Hatvala’s founder said, tea is for everyone because it is such a pleasant beverage. But current customers of Hatvala are true tea fans aged 30 and above.
On a sunny afternoon, we had a chance to talk to its founder, Ms. Ngoc, about her amazing adventure to build Hatvala. Upon enjoying some original cups of tea, she shared some incredible stories that we will never forget.
A Bit of Herself
Born and raised in Lao Cai – a borderline province in the northwest of Vietnam, Ngoc has nurtured a love for nature and local farming for a long time. This is quite easy to understand since Lao Cai is set in the middle of vast mountain ranges with terraced rice fields and ancient stone engravings. Considering this origin, her connection with nature is surely strong and profound.
Happily preparing her tea set and inviting us to enjoy our first cup of white tea, Ngoc began her story. After she moved to Hanoi as a student majoring in Chinese, she would often hang around with her university friends on the famous sidewalk clusters all over the city. These ancient quarters were her favorite areas to discover. During her university time, going from the sidewalk to have a bowl of bun cha, to that small street food stall to grab a Hanoi snack, was one of her greatest memories. It was not until they stumbled upon some traditional tea houses that Ngoc started to discover her love for tea.
Thai Nguyen – A Life-changing Destination
“Wandering” was the word she used to describe her time during these small yet precious discoveries in the Hanoi streets. Later on, Ngoc continued to wander far out of the capital city, aiming to find more Vietnamese teas. And her trip to Thai Nguyen seemed to change everything. “I discovered a lot: the geography, climate, soil condition, everything was just so impressive. It’s opened a new page for me,” Ngoc said when asked how she felt about the trip.
It was indeed a moment that began a new chapter. But before knowing about Thai Nguyen, Ngoc thought that Ha Giang was the ultimate heaven for growing and producing teas. It is also famous for centennial tea trees and their extraordinary aroma. However, the journey to reach such amazing tea leaves was not a one-day story because Ha Giang has a very challenging topography, with intense forests and mountainous roads. This explained why Thai Nguyen appeared as a savior after she discovered its true quali-tea. It possessed a more comfortable topography and also “the most excellent soil quality to grow teas in Vietnam,” according to Hatvala’s founder.
People often think Lam Dong (the province home to Da Lat city) is the homeland of Vietnamese tea as many tea farms here are becoming more popular. It also has a cold climate and rich soil suitable for growing tea. But “suitable” was not enough for Ngoc. She wanted the most selective and exceptional land that can produce a harvest of the finest teas to bring people the pleasure they should get from drinking tea. And Thai Nguyen is that exact land, where her adventure began.
Ever since then, Ngoc sees tea as not just a beverage to drink with friends, or to drink for fun. Pursuing a greater vision, she decided to establish her own tea business in order to shape an in-depth image of Vietnamese teas for a wider audience. Hatvala was born.
Challenge, Struggle, and Worthwhile Achievement
We continued our conversation over the second tea steeping, its flavor still remained the same. The small talk continued with how to differentiate between teas when Ngoc began to share her business story during hard times.
After a period of researching the market and gathering knowledge on Vietnamese tea, Ngoc “became more confident, and proud of the excellent resources that our country has to produce tea of high quality.” With this gift from mother nature, she decided to invest in producing tea right here in Vietnam. However, like all other business stories, there is always both the good, and the bad.
“Northern Vietnamese people are conservative,” she said, “so at first I started selling teas in the South.” Vietnam has three specific regions: the North, the Central region and the South. Due to thousands of years of history and country establishment, these regions gradually formed their own cultures, lifestyles and in this case, personality. People in the north of Vietnam tend to utilize what is already there and it’s very hard to change their minds on something new. Not to mention Hanoi’s tea culture is far more established than in the South, where people mostly drink tea in a hurried way.
Doing business is extremely tough and intense, and we must also mention that the founder is a woman which presented a few other hurdles. In her journey to build Hatvala, Ngoc experienced gender inequality. She was expected to do regular things, not start up a business. But Ngoc firmly believes “time will prove everything.” She stayed strong and persevered until her hard work paid off. She started to go out and discover more, to broaden her mind and see how the world enjoys their teas. Not just limiting herself to the precious resources that Vietnam has to offer, Ngoc gleaned knowledge from other famous tea cultures such as Japan and China. This is one way to change conservative minds!
Don’t Forget Funny Stories!
As Ngoc sipped on some tea, she joyfully recalled her incredible experience of recruiting an illustrator for Hatvala. At that time, everything was ready to sell, except for the most important part: package designs. The deadline was approaching and she still had not found what she was looking for. “After talking to around three people, the result was still negative. I was panicking. Desperate, I decided to go to Fine Arts University of Ho Chi Minh City and let fate guide my way.” Little did she know that this was the best decision to make.
“After arriving at the university, I barged into a painting center with a ‘try before you trust’ spirit.” Ngoc let her instincts take the lead through the crowd, and stopped when her mind said “bingo.” The man looked like a professor talking busily over the phone. She thought, “There’s no way back at this point,” and explained to him her current situation. After carefully listening to her, he agreed to introduce her to his student. The young and puzzled student Ngoc found that day is Hatvala’s illustrator now. They were fated to meet and work well together, which was one of life’s nicest surprises.
Before 2016, Ngoc tried to contact many distributing companies to sell her products. Most every company said no. But fast forward to the present: Ngoc is successful and sales offers from other companies are starting to come in. “Now I have the right to say no back,” she laughed.
At the moment, Hatvala tea has reached more than 40 countries all over the world. Their teas are all naturally grown by the hands of skillful and caring local farmers. That being said, these teas are completely free of chemicals and additives. Hatvala’s showroom located in Ho Chi Minh City is getting more popular for tea lovers in this city. And its founder is still making an effort every day to help spread Hatvala to more and more people.
It’s Tea Time!
After these long talks, it’s time for a new tea: jasmine flavored black tea. I hadn’t realized that we had enjoyed three teapots already. As we shared stories with amazing people, we lost track of time. Ngoc then began to talk about her knowledge of Vietnamese tea and her memorable experience sharing tea with local people.
To begin, she started with an interesting comparison between Vietnamese and Chinese tea drinking. “Vietnamese people drink tea with a sociable and sharing manner. It gives you warmth and comfort,” Ngoc said. “While in China, tea drinking is often more theatrical. You can easily see a flamboyantly dressed woman waving her paper fan and pouring tea in a sophisticated way. This is exciting in a certain way if you enjoy a tea performance rather than drinking it. While in Vietnam, you can drink tea while having a nonsense chat with your friends, or, you can even enjoy it alone.” Find a warm daisy teapot, and you’re ready to think about the meaning of life.
Ngoc mainly works with local households in northern Vietnam to source her teas. Today, she still remembers an old Hanoi couple that she met during her journey, for they had given her a strong touch of traditional northern Vietnamese value. Having lived in Tay Ho – an ancient area in Hanoi, they possessed such a conservative yet elegant manner, which was also expressed in their tea production. Now they choose producing tea as a pleasure after reaching old age, but they still keep that admirable trait they’ve always had in working on anything.
Finishing off our teapot, we also finished our story. Ngoc of Hatvala will still begin her new tea hunting adventures as if it never started. Her journey will continue with bringing Vietnamese tea values to more countries in the world. Sipping some tea, she concluded, “I build this business not for money. This is a new generation that I’m pursuing.” That is deep. Tea anyone?
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The post The Person Behind Hatvala and Her Journey to Find the Best Teas in Vietnam appeared first on The Christina's Blog.