Think of a moment when you encountered something so much bigger than yourself, it inspired both wonder and horror. Maybe you stopped, your breath stolen and your heart pounding, unable to look away, trying in vain to absorb it all and store it in your memory. Maybe you even tried to take a picture, but then you laughed at the poor little substitute for the tremendous sight in front of you.
For me, these moments only happen in nature. Philosophers have been writing about this phenomenon for centuries. Theologian Rudolf Otto called the experience “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, or, a fearful and fascinating mystery.
When I think about Vietnam, it’s not the food, or the motorbikes, or the cities that come to mind. It’s not even the people, resilient and beautiful as they may be. It’s my terror on the precipice of the Ma Pi Leng Pass, my awe at the sheer power of water cascading over Ban Gioc Waterfall, and my reverence in the majestic caverns of Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
It’s the sublime experiences I’ve had in the face of the most epic natural landscapes I’ve ever seen. The boundlessness of nature can be frightening, like mountain ranges that stretch so far into the distance, you can’t see where they end, or the unstoppable force of a storm rolling in. But these experiences are comforting, too. They remind me that I have no control over the universe; I am just a minuscule part of a much grander whole.