More than iced tea, the story of Vietnamese Lemon Iced Tea a.k.a Tra Chanh Ha Noi

August 20, 2018

As foreshadowed in our last blog post, we will be discussing a recreational activity unique to the Hanoians, Tra Chanh Chem Gio (Banter Iced Tea) a.k.a Tra Chanh Via He (Street Iced Tea) a.k.a Tra Chanh Ha Noi (Hanoi Iced Tea). Whichever name you call it, it is quintessentially, undeniably, a Hanoian’s drink.

 

The drink

 

No one can pinpoint when exactly the drink was born and when it became popular, but I distinctly recall frequenting Tra Chanh spots almost every night nearly a decade ago.

 

The drink itself is simple. It is made with loose green tea, honey, liquorice, a few drops of lemon juice, a hint of jasmine, and ice with some variations depending on the recipe of the shop serving it. The taste is a combination of sweetness, sourness, and the peculiar astringent taste caused by the tannins in the tea, a taste which the French describes as “âpre”.

 

 

  Source: garco10.com

 

The setting

 

Popular Tra Chanh spot in Hanoi. Source: xahoi.com.vn

 

Customers sip on Tra Chanh while biting down on sunflower seeds or roasted peanuts. Easy to make and enjoy, and yet most Hanoians don’t make the drink themselves at home becausethe location is just as important, if not more important, than the quality of the drink. It is usually served on the sidewalk, hence the name Tra Chanh Via He which literally translates to Sidewalk Iced Tea. People sit on small, compact stools made of plastic, wood, or bamboo. The drink is placed on a make-shift table, usually another stool.

 

Years ago, it was not uncommon to see hordes of customers and shopkeepers scrambling to move their chairs, tables, and drinks whenever police was in sight because it was illegal to overtake the sidewalk for business. However, Tra Chanh has proved to be such a lucrative business that shopkeepers try to utilize every legal loophole available, some even employing illegal practices, to keep the business running and away from police hassle.

 

Originating in Hanoi, the popularity of the drink has spread to other major cities like Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang, albeit short-lived as the trend quickly died out within a couple of years in the fast-paced Ho Chi Minh city.

 

Fancier alternatives exist. These spots usually have tables and chairs, customers sit inside or outside, and it is usually not as crowded.

 

A more upscale Tra Chanh shop in Ho Chi Minh city. Source: dendau.vn

 

A hugely popular Tra Chanh spot in Hanoi is right next to the Cathedral in the Old Quarter. During the heat of the summer, it can get so crowded that not one more seat can be crammed in and shopkeepers have to turn people away.