From Pagoda to Tea Bar. Hoài Linh Nguyễn’s Tea Journey

In 2018, Hoài Linh Nguyễn won Tea Masters Cup International in the Tea Pairing category and successfully performed in the Tea Preparation category of the same tournament. In fact, during the two days of the competition, Hoài Linh Nguyễn offered the judges and guests four variations on the theme of Vietnamese tea and Vietnamese tea culture — and he did it with so much ease and grace, as if it were a routine for him.

And a routine it was: Hoài Linh Nguyễn is the owner of a teahouse. Different teas, different traditions and different guests are part of his daily work. We talked with the champion about this usual work.

What skills and knowledge are required for your job?

In my opinion, important requirements for the job are: for each category of tea, one must know the place where it’s grown, the cultivar it is made of, its production process. One must also be able to make general assessment of the tea value by appearance of tea leaves, determine the most appropriate and finest brewing method for each particular type of tea.

The most mandatory skills for me are: to understand and distinguish each type of tea; to know the basics of brewing methods in order to adjust the flavor for your personal tastes. And when brewing, it’s absolutely necessary to keep an eye on water temperature, tea brewing time, etc.

Have you received any tea education?

There were no ‘decent’ classes teaching about tea but I’m always eager to learn from those who are profoundly experienced in this domain. Likewise, I’ve learnt plenty of useful tips while travelling to tea production areas across Vietnam.

How and when did you learn about Tea Masters Cup? And what made you decide to participate in the tournament?

I learnt about TMC through a friend. I decided to sign up for the competition as I desired to know more about tea. Moreover, I wanted to challenge myself. I believed I’d be able to discover much more useful knowledge, like tea brewing methods and all different tea types from across the globe. Besides, I was looking forward to demonstrating my personal brewing methods to everyone.

What was the most difficult part of the championship?

The most difficult thing is to control emotions during the routine. A perfectly stable state of mind plays a big role in winning the competition. I tried really hard to relax the body, making all my movements gentle but still smooth, so that my routine became a friendly, quotidian tea séance.

What was the most memorable moment or thing during TMCI 2018?

The most memorable moment of the contest is when I couldn’t stand the pressure, and I started to sweat a lot before going on stage. One of the judges, Mr. Denis, approached me and asked if I was alright. He then gave me a handkerchief so I could wipe the sweat. I felt very touched at that moment and regained my calm to get on stage. Even though TMCI is an international competition, the judges brought a comfortable and cozy ambiance to the contestants, giving us encouragement, relaxation and confidence. An ordinary competition would be filled with an intense, stressful atmosphere; such moments when the judges or even competitors reach out, open their minds to one another, comforting each other, are the rarest, and most beautiful.

How long have you been working with tea?

I started my career in March 2016. I was entering my twenties back then.

Why tea? Was there a certain point in your life when you turned to tea? Or do you belong to a tea family?

In my family, there is nobody who runs a tea business or has any recognition relating to tea industry. And so, I have chosen tea industry as my biggest passion. Since I was only eighteen years old, I often traveled across Buddhist countries in South-East Asia. In March 2016, during a trip to Cambodia, I was invited to a dinner in a pagoda, up in a mountain. A friend of mine, who was a monk and had been pursuing his monastic practice for eleven years, gave me a cup of tea after dinner. I remember that the tea was ‘Thiet Quan Am’. As I took the first sip, I could feel the tea diffusing through my body and my soul, the sensation was unforgettable. At that moment, I decided that I’d make tea my greatest passion. Since then, tea and I are inseparable, it has become one of my closest friends, it transforms me in the most positive manner everyday, making me a better person.

Could you tell us a bit about Linh Trà tea bar?

After that exceptional event in 2016, I went back home and started to learn more about tea and, in the meantime, I was making plans to open a teahouse. As I was learning more and more,

I discovered many abundant and diverse tea types. The most astonishing fact for me was: Vietnam, my home country, is one of the places with the most diverse tea types. In July 2016, I opened my first teahouse, which mostly sold traditional teas, and till 2017, it wasn’t a big success, most of the customers were family members and close friends of mine.

I was somewhat discouraged. In August 2017, when bubble tea (a mixed drink of milk and tea, accompanied with soft tapiocas, aka edible pearls) became popular in Vietnam, I came up with a bright idea. With my adequate knowledge at the moment, I’ve decided to combine many tea types with milk to see where it would go. I was amazed by the flavour of many mixtures. I closed my first teahouse and within a short period, I reopened it as a Bubble Tea house. Surprisingly, the number of customers started growing. In October 2018, I created my personal tea company. Two months later, I opened a new Bubble Tea house which replaced my first one. I chose Hoi An (Vietnam’s most famous tourist attraction) to inspire my new boutique decoration. My customers were so numerous: teenagers, couples, families, even businessmen… Besides selling bubble tea, I still keep traditional teas to sell in case some still enjoy having a warm teapot in the afternoon. I also updated the menu to include juices, coffee and smoothies to satisfy customers’ needs.

Could you share your tea plans and aspirations with us?

My greatest ambition is that everyone would drink more tea each day. Tea has so many benefits that you can only discover them yourself. I also want Vietnamese tea to be more popular in the Western world. Vietnamese tea is truly the delicacy of Vietnam, the finest gift of nature.

Photo Credits: Natalia Bogdanovska, Hoài Linh Nguyễn