Wearing a backpack and a simple sweater, it would be difficult to spot Mr. Odon Vallet in a crowd of people. There is nothing exceptional about his appearance or demeanor that sets him apart. He is quiet, modest and looks like what you would expect of a typical university professor. However, there is certainly more to Mr. Vallet than meets the eye.
I met this exceptional man on an evening in early April. He invited Anh Tuc Nguyen, a Dong Hanh member, and I to dinner at a small Italian restaurant on Paris’ busy Montparnasse Boulevard. We got to the restaurant before him so we sat down and awaited his arrival. I did not know what to expect. Tuc had met him before but I had no familiarity with Mr. Vallet, aside from the few articles that I had read about his work. After some minutes of waiting, Tuc stood up to greet our host – a man of about 60 who slowly ambled over to where we were sitting. He gently placed his backpack and baseball cap down on the table, took a seat and ran a hand through his ruffled grey hair. He gave us both a warm smile before rather loudly and purposefully saying, “So, why have you asked me here tonight?”
Odon Vallet has been one of Dong Hanh’s main donors since its creation in 2001. He has used his family inheritance to support thousands of Vietnamese students to reach their goals, students who otherwise would not have had the chance to complete their secondary or tertiary education. We were intrigued to discover why he chose to support Vietnam in particular, to which he responded: “Vietnam is one of the only countries in the developing world with the best student results in the sciences. For example I have given over 400 scholarships to students from Hanoi-Amsterdam, one of the best high schools of the country”. This staggering number immediately enabled me to get a feel for the scope and depth of his support for Vietnamese students.
More importantly, Mr. Vallet went on to explain, “Vietnamese have a strong solidarity with their country and family. They are extremely patriotic and so they are likely to return home after their education to give back to their country. Vietnam is also one of the only countries in the world that gives such a big importance to education.” It is obvious that Mr. Vallet is very taken with the country of Vietnam and its people. He had nothing but praise for his students and clearly cares very deeply about them, even taking the time to have regular dinners with them at the very restaurant where we were sitting. Having no children of his own, I got the sense that Mr. Vallet views the students as his extended family.
Mr. Vallet has an impressive working knowledge of Vietnam, which is likely due to the fact that he travels to the country once a year to give many scholarships to worthy candidates. During my time in Vietnam, I had the chance to work for Koto, an association that supports disadvantaged Vietnamese youth in obtaining an education in the hospitality industry. Mr. Vallet was very familiar with Koto, having eaten at its restaurant multiple times himself, and even knew more up-to-date statistics and specific information about the association than I did. This, to me, was a clear indicator that Mr. Vallet is not only passionate about his own students but also about the state of Vietnam in terms of development and education. He speaks no Vietnamese and lives on the other side of the world, yet has managed to become so highly involved in the country and is so passionate about the well being of its people. This kind of dedication is to me a rare and very special trait, of which Mr. Vallet certainly possesses.
One of Mr. Vallet’s most treasured memories from his time in Vietnam, he tells us, was when he had the chance to meet General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2004. This was a very symbolic occurrence considering all that the General represents and how much he was loved by the Vietnamese people. He told us that the meeting was in French and that he presented to General Giap six of his scholarship recipients, all were of ethnic minority from Dien Bien and Cao Bang and all were in their traditional costumes. The fact that Mr. Vallet had the honor of meeting this historic figure speaks to the level of respect that he has earned in Vietnam.
In fact, Vietnam is not the only place to which Mr. Vallet has allocated his time and funds. He also supports several students from the Francophone country of Benin due to the fact that it is “a pacified and democratic African country.” As with his Vietnamese students, Mr. Vallet meets his “Beninois” once a week for dinner to check on their well being. He very proudly tells us that one of his scholarship recipients was accepted to Harvard – a feat that he clearly holds very close to his heart.
I easily felt Mr. Vallet’s generosity from my brief encounter with him at the restaurant. At the end of dinner he insisted that both Tuc and I order our own dessert, even after we had agreed to share one between the two of us. He took great pleasure in ensuring our happiness, a very small representation of the concern that he has for others. His selflessness as well as his passion and extensive working knowledge of Vietnam truly struck me as remarkable. Mr. Odon Vallet is someone that I will never forget. The Dong Hanh Association is so grateful for his generosity and tireless support of those who wish to make their dreams come true through education.
*Note from the editor: We met Odon Vallet on 3rd April 2014. Exactly 60 years ago, the battle of Dien Bien Phu was in full action, there was an on-going war between France and Vietnam. France had sent many of their young ones to fight in Vietnam, and many of them lost their lives in this faraway land. 50 years later, Mr. Odon Vallet, a French university professor, met with General Vo Nguyen Giap, the very man that led the Vietnamese army to victory in Dien Bien Phu. Mr. Vallet presented to General Giap some of the students who had been awarded scholarships from his foundation. It was no coincidence that some of the presented students were ethnic minorities from the mountainous regions of Dien Bien. Today, many Vietnamese youths are coming to France to study. Some stay after their studies to work and contribute, as scientists and engineers, to the French economy. Some leave for Vietnam and become university professors, researchers, businessmen. It is a completely different kind of exchange between France and Vietnam now, and our meeting with Mr. Vallet 60 years after Dien Bien Phu shows just how the relation between the two countries has changed, for the better.