It may not take you all the way you need to go — the maglev only transports passengers half the way into the city, stopping at a station on a subway line you could have easily taken in the first place — but with a top cruising speed of 431km/h, it’s the fastest way to dispose of any preconceptions you might have about China as being the place where your shoes and underwear are made. Floating half an inch above the guideway, the 30km journey only lasts a disappointing seven or eight minutes, but the trip’s as smooth as a slip of Chinese silk — and it’ll be the fastest you’ve ever gone on land.
Preconceptions are something you’re going to have to leave behind you fairly swiftly in Shanghai. The city has a habit of humbling people within moments — just watch the European tourists fumbling with the magnetic tickets at the station gate — and it regularly defies the expectations of first-timers to the People’s Republic of China. Few visitors are prepared for the sheer scale of Shanghai; few anticipate its dynamic, international appearance or its unmistakable air of confidence.
This is the right time to be in Shanghai. For years, observers have accused the Shanghainese of pandering after western fashions — within China they’ve always been regarded with suspicion for their overly-conspicuous use of English expressions in everyday speech, and considered as being pretentiously ‘un-Chinese’. Since the 2010 World Expo, however, that stigma has vanished. Shanghai’s vogue of the present decade is international, for sure — but the financial strength it represents is no longer a reflection of the west’s, but the vanguard of China’s home-grown economic power. In a country that has for centuries been obsessed with saving face, Shanghai no longer needs to.
The An Phu of Shanghai
Shanghai’s easy familiarity with foreign modes stems directly from its colonial past. Today’s city still retains a slice of that era on its famous Bund, a riverside strip of century-old edifices that preserves the character of the early 20th century. The district is occasionally described as being similar to central Ho Chi Minh City — both are former colonial strongholds that have been transformed into modern metropolitan commercial centres, while in their imperial heydays they were both often described as the “Paris of the East”. A close look at the layout of the Bund reveals that the similarities between the two are not merely superficial; Shanghainese visitors to Vietnam, in fact, often describe the view over the Saigon River as being virtually indistinguishable from the Shanghai of the early 1980s.
Strolling down the Bund, it’s easy to see the parallels. On the western bank of the Huangpu River, which seems to curve just like its Vietnamese cousin, lies the old Foreign Concession; 30 years ago, the opposite side would have seemed much the same as District 2. Nowadays, of course, that area looks more like the cover of a science fiction novel — many of Mainland China’s tallest buildings are there vying for the skyline, decked out in their finest flashing lights and giant LED displays.
The disparity between the two river banks is jarring; without looking across to the other side, sauntering along the Bund almost feels like a stroll through a European suburb in the early 1900s. It’s a charming walk, but don’t expect to be alone with your thoughts while you’re there: the Bund is one of the most popular hangouts in a city where the population recently passed the 23 million mark. Across the street at the riverside, half of Shanghai will be there trying to sell you plastic jewellery with flashing lights, and the crowds are so thick it’s often difficult to get right to the edge of the water to take a photograph of space-age Pudong.
Jazz and Decadence
Right at the centre of the Bund stands the Fairmount Peace Hotel (20 East Nanjing Road), an architectural classic of the late 1920s, where nightly jazz performances relive the gaiety of an earlier age for tourists and expats alike. Regardless of the cultural chaos of that time, with its opium dens and gambling houses, the buoyant mood of the Peace Hotel’s Old Jazz Bar — open until 2am — has made it an incredibly popular venue. What makes the performances at the Old Jazz Bar so authentic are the musicians themselves — the band is comprised of original 1930s-era jazz musicians who played in the days when the hotel was still relatively new. If you can afford to, spend the night there: recent restorations have made this classic old hotel the work of art that it once was when it was first built.
Staying on or near the Bund is a good idea in general, as you’ll be well-placed for exploring the city centre. Without living in Shanghai, it would be futile to attempt to come to grips with anything beyond the central areas — Shanghai’s urban sprawl is profound, and the suburbs are virtually continuous between downtown Shanghai and several other cities in the surrounding province. With such an enormous city grid, the traffic is indescribable, and the city administration has had to come up with an ingenious solution to deal with the problem — building a second-tier road system several metres above the old one. The result is a glorious tangle of overpasses that has become one of the most distinctive features of Shanghai; while it keeps the ground-level streets shady, it also means that you’re just as likely to have cars driving past your window even if you live on the 15th floor.
City of the Gods
Fortunately, you can avoid the traffic by using Shanghai’s metro system, which is exemplary and easy to navigate. For a few Chinese renminbi you’ll be on your way to some of the city’s most iconic places of interest — foremost of which is the extraordinary Chenghuang Temple (247 Middle Fangbang Road), built during the Yongle reign (1403-1424) of the Ming dynasty. Take a short walk from the West Nanjing Road station on Metro Line 2 to visit.
It used to be that every town in China erected a temple for the worship and satisfaction of the local gods. Few of these survive around the country, but it’s very much in keeping with the nature of Shanghai that theirs — a complex of ornate halls about the same size as a university — has become a magnificent labyrinth of merchants. The old buildings are panelled in white like old Tudor homes, but in every other respect they stand magnificent in gorgeous, traditional Chinese style, laid out like a palace while a multitude of salespeople wander about its busy alleyways, approaching foreigners with their large photos of fake watches and incanting their hopeful, “Ruo-lek-si?”
Treat yourself to some genuine old-Shanghai snacks while you’re here. At Nanxiang Steamed Bun, you’ll congratulate yourself for sampling the famous xiaolongbao, chewy dumplings filled with chunky pork soup. Although if you’re interested in something slightly more impressive, the tang bao is a bear-sized version of the delicacy. The thick-skinned bread buns should be pierced with a straw — the tasty broth inside is sucked out and the doughy skin should be discarded.
The temple’s religious halls are still active, focusing on the worship of prominent city officials from Shanghai’s distant past who are now venerated as saints. Take a look if you’re interested, but you may find it rather more in keeping with the nature of Shanghai just to wander through the shopping area and enjoy the ruckus of tourists and earnest merchants. Everything is on sale here; gold and jade ornaments alongside plastic fruit and model cars; fans and silks hanging from stalls next to others peddling stuffed toys. Be on the lookout for Shanghai’s version of the ao dai, a glamorous garment known as the qipao which hugs the figure tightly just like the Vietnamese variety — but which, rather intriguingly, is minus the pants.
Cocktails in Heaven
Not far from the Chenghuang temple is one of Shanghai’s most happening modern pedestrian districts, the smart Xintiandi — which means “New Heaven and Earth”. This assortment of restaurants and name brand fashion stores is an attempt to preserve some of the original character of traditional Shanghainese shikumen architecture by incorporating it into a stylish modern design — a trick that has worked. From a distance, the complex looks like a collection of traditional houses made anew — and many Shanghainese will have lived in such homes as children. Get within and you’ll find yourself amidst the trendiest of bars and cafes. Here you’ll find international cuisine and live music played by world-class musicians; here you’ll find an excuse to mellow out as well as a convenient place to go wild.
Over the last decade, Xintiandi has become the definitive place to be seen in Shanghai, an impressive claim in a city where many fashionable locations compete fiercely for this reputation. Even if you’re not in the mood for an overly expensive coffee or beer, just strolling around the charming architecture in the daytime is fascinating enough. In a way, Xintiandi reconciles the contradictions between the different faces of the city, serving up the mood of a Shanghai of long ago that is distinct from its colonial history, and at the same time orientating tourists well within the present day. It’s the ideal place to come to terms with an overwhelming city, where you’ll feel at last that you’ve begun to understand what Shanghai’s all about.
Flying direct from Vietnam to Shanghai is costly. Hanoi to Shanghai one way with Vietnam Airlines costs around VND7 million. From Ho Chi Minh city it is around VND7.5 million.
AirAsia flies to Shanghai via Kuala Lumpur, but to make the trip worthwhile you will need to book well in advance. The standard one-way fair from KL is VND5.5 million.
Another option is to fly to Hong Kong and take an internal flight or fly China Southern Airlines to Guangzhou and switch to a domestic flight to Shanghai.