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Acquirability of Thưởng Trà

Throughout the 3000 years of history in Vietnam, tea has become an inseparable part of traditional Vietnamese culture (Thinh 2012). This national drink, Quốc Thủy, requires its own complicated way of making and enjoying called thưởng trà (Thinh 2012). Thưởng trà is a work of art where every step along the way has to be done flawlessly, every element must complement one another in harmony to ensure desired outcome, a good cup of tea (Vu 2006). It is within this prolonged procedure that tea was elevated from ‘just a drink’ to a signifier of national values, cultivation of social relationship and hence, the taste for tea is no less complex. I hereby apply the theory of distinction of taste from Bourdieu (1984) to explain the taste for thưởng trà and at the same time point out who can afford such prestige practice.

What is thưởng trà?

Thưởng trà is roughly translated into English as ‘enjoying tea in leisure’. However, I personally feel like the word thưởng trà itself embedded so much valuable meanings that any conversion to other languages would risk losing these treasures. In spite of the significance of tea in Vietnamese economic, social and most importantly, cultural life, many aspects of tea still remain as an open question in terms of scholarly research (Ngo 2002). Admittedly, I must say that it is quite impossible to completely explain the art of thưởng trà. Nonetheless, this research project should be my best attempt at offering my contribution to explore a part of these untranslatable values.

I was born and raised in the midst of social transitioning and globalisation of Vietnam and especially, the exposure to foreign culture in the capital city of Hanoi where I live. Regardless of the rapid changes occurring, I still see tea almost every day. Through observing my grandfather thưởng trà, I have grown fond of the enormous effort and sincerity he put into each cup of tea. I remember every Lunar New Year when we have the most guests come around, I can really feel the tie of social bond over the small talks between by grandfather’s old friends while he slowly makes tea to serve them.

According to our ancestors, thưởng trà starts out as ‘Nhất nước, nhì trà, tam pha, tứ ấm’ (Trinh 2012, p. 94). This phrase has been passed on since forever, reminding the posterity to carefully pick out everything from the water, the tea leaves to the way of making and even the choice of teapot. The chosen water must satisfy all requirements of being clear without any colour, smell or taste for it should complement the added tea flavour (eds Pham & Bui 2010). A variety of tea is available in response to the demand of different taste. Whilst city dwellers prefer trà sen (lotus tea) or trà Tàu (Chinese tea), the countryside tends choose to Eugenia buds (Phan 2007). However, throughout the whole country still share the love for trà mạn (tr

aditional dried tea) and the national flavour of fresh green tea leaves (Vu 2002) (Vu2006). For younger generation like myself nowadays, teabags often come in as a more convenient and modern way of thưởng trà (Nguyen 2002b). Then comes the tea making process which always start out with clean hands and clear tea set to show respect for the accompany and also the practice (Tran & Doan 2005). First, choose the teapot of fitting size. Then, water is boiled to a suitable temperature then poured all over the tea set to warm up. Using a wooden spoon or just by hand, transfer tea from its container into the pot. Once again, pour water in and out of the pot quickly to thoroughly clean the tea leaves. Now that all the tools are ready, pour water into the pot and wait for the tea to diffuse. When the tea is ready, pour it into the big teacup, chén tống, and then divide it into smaller cups for everyone in age order (Vien Tran 2018). This action, while ensuring the same quality in each cup, also reflects upon the national values of equality (Trinh 2012). In Vietnam, tea leaves are not filtered but served with the tea right away. This portrays the gratitude left in the teacup serve to the dearest of friends who drink tea together (Vien Tran 2018). The tea leaves can be used twice but after that when the taste is lost, tea now can only be saved to use for cleansing the mouth after meal (Vu 2006). The whole process has to be done gently with grace like a ceremony in itself (Ngo 1994).

If the host have shown their hospitality and respect in putting the time and effort to invite the guests to thưởng trà, there must be a recipe for a respectful reply from the guests (Dinh 2017). Tống khẩu is the first step to clean the mouth (Sieu Hai 2010). Enjoy tea while still hot and drink it leisurely to get the most out of the tea flavour (Tan Phong 2002). Because thưởng trà is a long leisurely process, imagine the amount of small talks and bonding over the course of making, waiting and slowly drinking tea. ‘Ẩm nhi tri kỳ vị’, meaning thưởng trà can only be done with the closest friends (eds Pham & Bui 2010, p. 784). Tea provides the link between host and guests, strengthen the lasting friendships (Hoang 2005). The guests hold the responsibility to finish their cup of tea to show respect before leaving (Ngo 1994). In every gathering, tea brought about fondness and elegance between the most refined people. Whether happy, sad, gathering or farewell, tea is always hold the value of social bonds (Nguyen 2000).

Thưởng trà: A Classification of Taste

The first brilliant aspect of Bourdieu’s theory that I want to mention is the classification of taste. Apparently, taste is not purely a personal choice but rather a cultural one (Bourdieu 1984). Taste is said to be resembled from the length of education and social origin. Social class informs the amount of cultural and economic capital and therefore, derives a set of predisposition to recognise and grow fond of certain taste.

In the case of thưởng trà, there are, of course, classification of tea as said above. This coincide with what Bourdieu (1984, p. 6) had to say, ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’. Apparently, people of different social origins (city and countryside dwellers) must inherit unequal amount of capitals which in turn, develop their own distinctive preference. This is the direct result of social upbringing that one has exposure to a more expensive kind of tea.

Thưởng trà: Superiority of Form over Function

The next aspect of Bourdieu’s theory worth mentioning in regard to thưởng trà is the formation of legitimate taste. The idea is that within a practice like thưởng trà, there exists two oppositional spectrums of form and function. Only when one can make a distinction between the two that he acquires the legitimate taste. Form refers to the artistic freedom while function is purely the necessity. So to enjoy the form is the ‘taste of luxury’ and to seek function is the ‘taste of necessity’ (Bourdieu 1984, p.6).

The beauty of thưởng trà lies all in its form. It is particularly important to enjoy tea in its forms as it is neatly and carefully presented to show the intention of cultivating a deepening friendship. Tea is a special refreshment in this way. If used in reply to necessity of a thirst, tea is just tea. But tea also can be served while not thirsty to just simply enjoy the form of it (Nguyen 2000). In order to thưởng (enjoy), it is compulsory for the person to focus on the manner, namely the presentation, serving and receiving, and forget about the function of drinking tea to satisfy the thirst as a necessity (Vu 2006). That is how legitimate taste in thưởng trà can be explained through the lens of Bourdieu (1984).

Thưởng trà: In Opposition to Bourdieu (1984)

Firstly, aforementioned that Vietnam has its own classification of tea. However, I also said that the whole nation still shares the love for some particular types of tea as well. The disconnection between my own findings and Bourdieu’s could be for a reason. Bourdieu was criticized for being too deterministic in his research where he assumed everyone is a passive recipient of the social structure given to them (Berger 1986). If we were to apply Bourdieu’s finding to real life, individual would just absorb what is given without questioning or imposing any individuality into what they are doing which is not possible. Reality gives people the option to actively choose what they consume. This is not to disregard everything that Bourdieu has said but rather suggest that social class background does affect cultural choice, to an extent.

Applying that to the case of thưởng trà, the fact that the whole nation comes to adore the same kinds of tea suggest an overlapping cultural choice in the class structure. The choice of tea, expensive or affordable, does not necessarily affect the legitimate taste of it because as said by Vu (2006), thưởng trà is an art without recipe. Our culture welcomes the diversification of choices to make thưởng trà more inclusive, most importantly, to attract the younger generation like myself (Nguyen 2002b).

Secondly, if Bourdieu stated legitimate taste is formed at the extend of sufficient cultural capital and freeing of economic burdens then the one who can acquire this taste definitely belongs to the elite class (Bourdieu 1984). The elite class consists of people with accumulation of cultural, economic and social capital. They are the one who can afford to forgo the weariness about money to enjoy the form. As analyzed above, to be able to perform an act of thưởng trà means the acquisition of legitimate taste and ultimately, belongs to the upper social class. However, this is not the case in Vietnam.

Haralambos et al. (2013) once questioned the application of Bourdieu’s theory on the rest of the world. The reason being the methodological flaw in Bourdieu’s research. His book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, was written based on his research conducted entirely in French. The scope of these surveys and interviews, while might well reflect the situation of France at time, may not say the same about the rest of the world then and now.

In Vietnam, the consumption of tea does not limit to any particular social class (Dinh 2017). Some people say that tea is the cheapest and most common form of refreshment which is true. However, there are other types of expensive tea with the price tag of 300USD/100gr or more (Nguyen 2002a). And even when it comes to this price, people still do not regret buying. Why? Tea is not conspicuously consumed for the shake of its price tag and the user’s social class but the reason rather comes back to the spiritual values of tea in Vietnamese daily life (Nguyen 2002a). Vietnamese families, regardless of status, must have a table to serve tea (eds Pham & Bui 2010). As the old saying, ‘cơi trầu, chén nước’, this space represents the whole family to show hospitality when welcome in guests with a cup of tea next to some betel and areca nuts to begin the conversation and nurture the relationship (Vu 2008, p. 26).

Thưởng trà: Who Can Acquire It?

So the question remains who can afford to thưởng trà? As opposed to Bourdieu’s theory which suggest that this legitimate taste belongs only to the upper class, I would argue that thưởng trà is for every Vietnamese person to acquire. Ever since the early days, Vietnamese people have been coming to tea, seeking refreshments both physically and mentally (Dinh 2017). If Bourdieu said that economic capital gives the upper class the disposition to enjoy form over function of necessity then paradoxically, thưởng trà did the same thing in reverse, bringing about a clear mind (Dinh 2017). Ultimately, this means temporarily lifting of the economic burdens.

Consequently, as long as a person prepare a calm mind set coming to a thưởng trà session, he or she can totally acquire it. Because unlike other prestige legitimate culture studied by Bourdieu, Vietnamese tea is a successful refreshment, enjoyed by all from the city to the countryside, from the broken-down home to the Western-style house, everyone drinks it everywhere with minimal distinctions (Luc Vu 2008). Furthermore, thưởng trà is a space to slowdown to enjoy the spiritual tranquillity, the company of the dearest friends sharing a teapot. Hence, even if a person has money but his mind is constantly seeking pragmatism, he will fall short behind in the art of thưởng trà.

Thưởng trà in Vietnamese Culture

Borrowing the definition of culture provided by Vietnamese old father of the nation, Ho Chi Minh, he said that culture consists of all human creations (Dang 2008). Human create to survive and develop, that is why we have languages, letters, moral, laws, science and art to serve us in everyday life (Dang 2008). Accordingly, culture is the distinguishing factor, separate human from other living creatures because man-made culture is opposite to nature. Culture also determines the differences between one nation to the others. Culture is the product of a society. That is why culture and society go hand in hand, one represents the other (Dang 2008).

The practice of eating and drinking also fall into this definition of culture. Especially in Vietnam, eating and drinking actively contribute to reflects upon the national traditions (Nguyen 2000). Having thưởng trà in our culture has a lot to say about who we are as a Vietnamese. A nation with people who are calm, welcoming and sincere in the cultivation of any social relationship, all starting from a cup of tea. And above all, thưởng trà as a legitimate cultural choice, according to the definition of Bourdieu (1984), could be acquired by every Vietnamese has a lot to say about how ‘elite’ of a nation we are.


To sum it up, thưởng trà is undeniably a work of art in a culture that has been built and looked after for thousands of years and Vietnamese generations. Tea is a bridge for cultivation of social relationship, effectively showing the accumulated affection and sincerity on the tea table through every act of making. Throughout the years, tea has opened countless conversations and at the same time, is the ceremonial exchange of relationship between various social classes (Tran 2010).

Through exploration of tea through the lens of Bourdieu’s idea of distinction of taste, I believe I have contributed a new look and meaning to thưởng trà. By applying an internationally recognised idea like Bourdieu (1984) to Vietnamese culture, I tried to prove that thưởng trà is a legitimate taste in a widely-known definition. Not to mention, thưởng trà has an aspect that Bourdieu had not discovered in his research. From end to end with my micro research, I hereby suggest a conclusion that thưởng trà, as a legitimate taste, is the exchange of social relationships enjoyed at the extend of liberation from necessity by every Vietnamese social class, as opposed to Bourdieu (1984). Of course in my humble effort, what I have done so far is only a fragment of what thưởng trà has to offer. There remain other edges of Vietnamese tea culture that requires further study to complete the wonders of thưởng trà in Vietnam over the past, present and beyond.


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