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Vignette: Behold Vietnam's Oldest Rock, a Memento Mori of Human Insignificance

While lamenting how long it had been since I’d last sent a postcard, a coworker at Saigoneer revealed that she is too young to have ever seen a stamp in person, let alone affixed one to a letter. The fashions I wore in high school have come full circle and are once again in style. New slang terms initially baffle and then enrage me. I read popular music festival fliers without recognizing a single name. 

In other words, lately, I’m feeling old. I am thus extremely thankful for the “Fossils - A Journey to Discover the Origin of Life on Earth” exhibition in Huế for putting it in perspective for me.

In front of ancient ammonites, the teeth of long-extinct wales, bone fragments from prehistoric panda bears, evidence of monstrous sharks and fragile shrimps, rests the exhibition’s most impressive piece: a hunk of rock. Dull brown with swaths of drab red, dusty gray and black, it looks exactly like any rock you may picture; it's the Platonic ideal of a rock. An average person passing it in a park wouldn’t give it a second glance. 

But Dr. Trần Ngọc Nam, the former Dean of the Department of Geography-Geology of the College of Science, Huế University, was on a mission to find such a rock. Research had suggested Vietnam’s oldest rocks would be found in the Central Highlands and the Con Voi Mountain Range in the Northwest. He thus traveled with a team to a waterfall in Yên Bái Province to collect this specimen. Analysis of its zircon crystals at a Japanese laboratory determined it to be 2.936 billion years old.

2.936 BILLION years old? That means the rock has been around since before a single living creature existed on our planet, let alone the emergence of humans. Its very existence amongst our society today serves as a valued memento mori, reminding us how insignificant the average human lifespan is compared to the longevity of the physical world.

Thinking about how long it’s been lying about, minding its own existence has helped assuage the emotions I’ve been feeling — I realize that when I was staying up past my bedtime, praying the sound of dial-up internet wouldn’t wake up my mom, some of my friends hadn’t even been born yet. But I’m not old, that rock is old. 

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